Take a stroll through downtown Cheyenne and you might be startled to see a giant purple kraken consuming the side of a building at the corner of Central Avenue and East 20th Street. Then there’s a bison casually strumming a guitar behind the Paramount Café that might be equally as eye-catching.
These colorful large-form murals are just two of the dozens of examples of public art that have cropped up in Wyoming’s capital city over the last seven years.
And proponents of Cheyenne’s public art scene say the artistic expression has transformed downtown.
“Murals are a quick and easy way to activate public spaces and to drive traffic and tourism to areas,” said Desiree Brothe, public arts coordinator for Arts Cheyenne, a nonprofit organization advocating and promoting art and culture in Cheyenne and Laramie County. “It’s a really easy way to quickly gain some momentum in all the economic development components.”
Brothe said the idea of transforming drab spaces downtown into colorful murals was first proposed in 2016 when she was a project manager at Cheyenne’s Downtown Development Authority.
“The DDA at that time had launched a downtown mural program,” Brothe told Cowboy State Daily. “And through that initial effort we put in, I think, eight to 10 new murals downtown between 2016 and 2018.”
The DDA secured money for the first set of murals through grants from the Wyoming Business Council. Brothe said one artist was commissioned for each mural, providing financial support (and a very public forum) for area artists. But she said one of the murals in those first years was a community-driven collaboration, involving multiple volunteers.
“(Artists) created the design, and we put it on a building, and then community members could sign up and do the painting process so that they could take in some involvement with that,” said Brothe.
Brothe said that around the same time the DDA created opportunities for local artists to decorate downtown, other organizations were coming up with their own large-format creations.
“Around 2016, another event started up, and it (became) part of Cheyenne’s 4-Ever West Tattoo Fest,” she said. “They added a mural or a painting component when it was initially started, and that piece grew under the guidance and leadership of Eddie Fernandez," a well-known graffiti artist based in Cheyenne.
Brothe said as part of the early events, artists would paint on plywood panels while spectators watched. But the concept was so popular that within two years, artists were offered the opportunity to paint on actual buildings during the festival.
“There was one that went in the alleyway behind the Ernie November (record store),” said Brothe. “And there was one that went on the T.R.I.B.E. tattoo shop off of Lincolnway.”
In 2019, Brothe said the festival partnered with West Edge Collective marketing firm, which gave the event more background and support – and more walls to create on.
Soon, mural painting itself was celebrated on its own, with a street festival called Paint Slingers. The celebration became a key component in Cheyenne’s Culture Expo, a weeklong art festival that celebrates urban culture and diversity, and includes demonstrations and competitions for tattooing, glass blowing, street art, graffiti and skateboarding, as well as a car show and a free concert.
Now in its eighth year, Brothe said CultureX draws artists from around the region. This year's event takes place July 13-15.
“We would bring in about 30 artists, some of them were local, but a lot of them were regional,” said Brothe. “The Denver art scene loves coming up to Cheyenne and participate in that event. We got a sponsorship a couple of years to provide some paint for those artists.”
The Movement Takes Off
But the mural movement has expanded beyond an annual festival.
Cheyenne City Councilman Richard Johnson told Cowboy State Daily that there are individually sponsored murals scattered throughout the city, as well as other public art projects.
“If you go down the crosswalks, like right by City Hall, you'll see that the crosswalks are painted, and that's a project that we started last year with the high school art clubs,” said Johnson. “We had all the murals stenciled on the crosswalks and we put up all the cones … so the kids got to paint all the crosswalks for almost nine blocks.
“And this year, from what I understand, they're supposed to do the skate park.”
Johnson, who formerly served on the board of directors for Arts Cheyenne, has been involved in the city’s public arts movement for many years. He is a vocal advocate for involving the community in beautifying the urban landscape, a movement that also raises the community’s social media profile.
When searching images of Cheyenne on Instagram, the postcard at the corner of Lincolnway and Pioneer “is the most photographed piece of art in this community,” said Johnson. “If you go on Instagram and just type in ‘Cheyenne,’ you'll probably find 50 photos of tourists posing with that postcard on the side of Our Place. Because it's Cheyenne, and it's got the purple horses and stuff like that.”
Brothe said that a side benefit of the murals has been a decrease in graffiti vandalism.
“It's a hard sell for property owners, because they don't automatically see it, but there is a mutual respect piece,” she said.
In many cases, she said those prone to doing graffiti “are not going to damage a piece of art because they have a respect for the time and energy it takes to put into those pieces, regardless of the subject matter. So we really don't see vandalism on any of our pieces.”
Brothe said the backsides of buildings, alleys and parking lots are excellent locations for murals, in part because it’s easy for those spaces to otherwise become unsightly.
“(A mural) activates those alleys a little bit and helps kind of prompt some civic pride in terms of keeping them clean,” she said.
In fact, Johnson said the mural movement last year received money from the city for just those reasons, for the first time collaborating with the mural artists and allowing them to paint on public property, rather than being limited to privately owned structures.
“The fourth floor of the parking garage was actually getting all kinds of graffiti and stuff on it,” Johnson told Cowboy State Daily. “But they figured that the graffiti artists would not paint over other murals, and so last year, (the Paint Slingers) did the top floor of the parking garage.”
As part of this summer’s Culture Expo, Paint Slingers artists will focus again on the Spiker parking garage at 307 W. 17th St., completing work that was begun last year, and adding new pieces for this year.
Cheyenne Public Art Walking Tour
Brothe said that there is a walking tour app available from the Visit Cheyenne website that will guide people around the city to the locations of some of the most prominent public art pieces.
“You can download that, and that'll actually take you on a tour of all public art bronzes and murals and everything,” she said. “And I'm working on updating kind of a paper version for everybody who doesn't want an app.”
Transforming Downtown Cheyenne
Brothe pointed out that the popularity of the mural movement has expanded Cheyenne’s art scene beyond the city’s traditional Western roots. She said that a challenge when the movement was first beginning was that every business owner that was approached only wanted to have a mural that would reflect Cheyenne’s cowboy culture.
“They always wanted to see buffalo or something about trains or something about the Old West,” she said. “And those things are important, but then we become so homogenous – if that's all we put up throughout downtown, then we don't express anything else.”
But Brothe said when artists began painting more diverse subjects, the other cultures in Cheyenne were able to be seen and to be heard through their art.
“Cheyenne does have some diversity there, that we want to be able to share and support,” she said.
Now, Brothe said the mural project and other public art exhibition entices even Cheyenne natives to appreciate their city with a fresh perspective.
“A lot of people comment on how much it's changed downtown,” she said. “Now, you'll hear that on both sides of the coin, but the positive side of the coin is that it feels like a downtown they would go visit someplace else. It doesn't feel like the downtown they grew up in, and that's always fun to hear – because that means we enacted change in a positive way, that makes it feel exciting and interesting and engaging to go to.”