WALDO CANYON FIRE: Graffiti artist sprays message of recovery

GARRISON WELLS Updated: December 10, 2012 at 12:00 am • Published: December 10, 2012

As art shows go, the venue where Justin Duddles displays his work isn’t exactly upscale.

His canvas is concrete, cold and gray as tombstones, buried 8 feet deep in burned soil.

But then, he’s used to it.

Other pieces of his art include a Spider-Man on a wall in Ann Arbor, Mich., and a Christmas tree in a tunnel in Chapel Hill, N.C., places the family visited.

Duddles, a lanky 14-year-old, is the talent behind murals on the foundation of a home in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood that was destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire.

Here where the trees are charred, spindly shadows and remnants of the blaze create a bleak landscape; bright colors, wildly curving swipes of green and blue fight to send out a positive message.

“Hope,” they suggest. “Rise,” they whisper.

Those messages are under the dour gaze of a massive portrait of a dwarf from the upcoming movie “The Hobbit.”

This is where Duddles is on afternoons and weekends when he has the time and the urge to create, using primer, spray paint and brushes.

He uses generic paint because it’s cheap, but he also buys more expensive supplies at art stores that are made especially for this kind of painting. There’s Valspar, for a couple bucks. Ironlak, a special paint, runs $5 a can. Some are low double digits, a fortune for many 
 14-year-olds.

In some circles, this is called urban or street art. In others, it’s plain old graffiti — wild scrawls, splashes of color, the occasional missive, portraits, often edgy stuff.

Some versions of it can be seen on the sides of train cars as they trundle by. Gangs use it to mark their turf on buildings and bridges, anywhere there is a large enough blank wall to post their messages.

But there’s a more socially acceptable vein, too.

There are books on it. And the form has its stars, such as Banksy, of England; C215, of France; and David Choe, of Los Angeles.

In Colorado Springs, Larry “Fuse” Masters is the artist who wields the top spray can.

“It’s a surprisingly strong, well-developed art form,” said Nathan Duddles, Justin’s father. “I knew nothing about it until Justin started getting into it.”

Duddles’ venue on Majestic Drive is a couple of doors from where he lived when the fire tore through the community off Flying W Ranch Road. His house is no longer there.

Amid the rubble were several toasted cans of Justin’s spray paint, the caps gone because the intense heat forced them to pop out.

Survivors pull together, it seems. So when Nathan Duddles asked the owner of the nearby lot, Jim Rottenborn, if Justin could channel his art on their foundation, he was told sure.

“This cul-de-sac used to be a close-knit community,” he said. “Now we are spread all over the place.”

On Thanksgiving, the former neighbors got together at this below-grade gathering place and celebrated with food and, ironically, fire, albeit in a fire pit.

Justin Duddles has been into art of one form or another since age 5. In those days, it was crayons, magic markers and pencils. Now a freshman at University School in Colorado Springs, he has graduated into other ways to display his messages, acrylics, horse hair paint brushes … spray paint.

For his 14th birthday, he got an airbrush kit.

Nathan Duddles says he believes Justin has tapped into a familial trait. Carole, his mother, plays violin. Nathan is a photographer. There are graphic artists in the bloodline.

Justin’s artistic journey took a radical turn from the traditional after he received a book from his mother a year and half ago on urban art.

“I just loved it,” he said.

A street artist was born, and the garage was transformed into a studio where Justin, in a breathing mask, learned his craft.

On this day, as the light faded behind the mountains, Justin worked in graceful gestures, the green spray paint accenting his message to the community to “Rise.”

That is an important word to him.

“I use that as my name, Rise,” he said. “There’s hope and I feel people need it. It gets good spirit.”

Rise is also a message he wants to express as a Christian.

“I feel that Christians need to rise in the community and among people and all that,” he said.

He returned to his wall. A bubble here. A dab there. Some restrained swoops. A wild slash.

It’s what he sees in his mind, he said.

“Sometimes I try to force inspiration,” he said. “Mostly I don’t have to. I’m real visual. It becomes instinctive, but it takes a lot of practice.”

In his gosling days, he pointed the can the wrong way and sprayed himself in the face.

Some day, Justin said, he would like to paint stores, such as coffee shops and other youth-oriented outlets. He has painted the trash cans at his school with school themes.

“I want to give those people a good message,” he said.

It works for him. On a bad day, he said, painting makes things better.

Justin isn’t done with the foundation.

More work is needed on the dwarf since there weren’t any illustrations out for him to work from when he first painted it. There’s primer to be laid. More swoops, slashes and bubbles.

An artist’s creation, he has learned, is never really done. He figures he will be painting the foundation when the house is rebuilt.

“I will be painting,” he said. “And they will be pulling up chunks of the foundation.”

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