Whether you’re admiring one of Charlo Garcia Walterbach’s elaborate and whimsical murals around Denver, or simply listening to the artist, who goes by “Charlo,” speak, one word always seems to emerge: “joy.”
“There’s a component of joy that is contagious,” he says. “I feel like it’s my duty to make sure I’m not stopping that.”
If you’ve had the chance to experience one of the dozens of playful paintings from the Monterrey, Mexico native that have cropped up around the Mile High City in that time, it’s a role he certainly seems well suited for. In his characteristic style, the monochromatic murals showcase complex, interwoven geometric designs, with unique hidden phrases and symbols sprinkled in for viewers to find, sort of like a treasure hunt. Messages related to home, gratitude, and (you guessed it) joy are common threads, along with similar equivalents in Spanish like alegría, which means “experiencing joy.”
But much like those hidden motifs, you’ve probably had to look closely to catch most of Charlo’s projects up to this point. Many of his sprawling alleyway murals live on garages of various Denver homes as part of his ongoing project, “Make Alleys Great Again.” The impromptu series started in September 2020 after Charlo put a call out on Nextdoor asking for spare wallspace to try as a new canvas. A stranger named Clay replied, offering up his black garage door near Cheesman Park. Charlo says he didn’t expect the first mural to lead to much, but after Clay posted a picture back on Nextdoor of Charlo’s final product, the requests came pouring in—and they haven’t stopped since. The project has since blossomed into a campaign to spread joy, with nearly 30 commissions completed to date.
“My entire life, I’ve always been doing art, but it’s something that’s never been outside, it’s always been inside—doing art for myself, in sketchbooks. I guess I just never felt confident enough,” he says. But after moving to Denver from Los Angeles in September 2019, the cabin fever caused by the pandemic finally pushed the digital designer by day to share his art on a larger scale. This summer, the mural-based mission has only grown.
“In my home country, most of my friends are not vaccinated yet. They still don’t see each other, they have more of a psychological tax, and I can see it from outside because my reality is so different to what they’re going through,” Charlo says. “So I feel like there’s a duty to me to do what I love doing the most, to try and put out that service of creating, again, these joyful moments.”
It’s a calling that has certainly kept him busy. Since that first garage door for Clay in Cheesman Park, Charlo’s painted several larger-scale public murals at the likes of Level 1 and Avanti Food & Beverage, and more than two dozen commissioned Make Alleys Great Again murals to date, all of which he documents through his Instagram account, @charlo.gw. And while he says the name of the project began as a political statement to reclaim some meaning from former President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” or “MAGA,” his main focus is to add positivity.
“Because I’m Mexican, for four whole years I took [that slogan] as a very direct attack, which I’m sure I’m not the only one,” he says, recalling the stress and uncertainty for his future that he felt during those years, as a then-recent immigrant to the U.S. “Now, I’m more about expanding the meaning, like maybe the four letters ‘M-A-G-A’ can also mean this other thing that is very joyful. I ultimately don’t want to divide people either … I think it’s more about really bringing joy to something unexpected—an unexpected place like an alley.”
In fact, human connection with neighbors is an essential part of Charlo’s creative process, as he integrates symbols and words that hold special meaning to that family or homeowner into every mural. He says he also hopes for the murals to spark constant discovery for Denverites and himself. For example, he wants bystanders to be able to give him ideas and inspiration as he paints, and he expects people will be able to find a new hidden gem in his art each time they pass by.
“It’s a very spontaneous action, which, to me, is also related to the event of joy,” he says. “Joy, in general, is something that you can provoke—you can go out and do something that you will enjoy in order to feel that. But also, life is full of moments that you just need to kind of pay attention to, in order to spark that moment of joy. Which, I think, is where my art lives.”
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It’s a collaborative process that’s made the Mile High City feel more like home for him, too.
“As an immigrant living in LA, I never got to really develop those [connections] because a lot of things happen at a surface level … everything is so fast,” Charlo says. But in Denver, he describes a distinct “warmth to the city” that he noticed when he first visited, and that he still recognizes today. “In Denver, when I’m working on this project, I’m allowing myself to meet these people, I’m really getting to know them, creating friendships, and that’s how I’m really developing roots. I feel like I’m grounded here, and I have other family that is not my family.”
And while Charlo’s tight-lipped about where Denver can expect to see his art sprout up next, he says he’s still eager to paint dozens more garages. He also hopes to see the project grow beyond just his hands in the future, whether that’s festival-size events or other undertakings.
“That would really make me happy, if something like this ignited something way larger than just me doing garage doors,” he says. “Where we’re a community of artists bringing art to the places we live.”