The Denver Graffiti Tour doesn’t start with graffiti. Instead, it begins under one of Pat Milbery’s bright-colored Love This City” murals on North Broadway. The tour is billed as a walking showcase of the graffiti, street art, and mural art in Five Points’ ever-changing River North Arts District (RiNo). And trust me, there’s plenty of Instagram-worthy art to see. But to my surprise, the tour is about so much more than the artwork or the artists that create it. 

As we waited for the tour to begin on a warm Sunday afternoon, a pair of young 20-somethings in leather boots and Ray Bans had an impromptu photoshoot under the mural. Other passersby pulled out cameras and phones, and waited their turn to snap a picture of Milbery’s simple and visually pleasing message.

(Photos: Denver’s Best Street Art)

As I watched the scene unfolding, a booming voice across the street grabbed my attention. Someone was singing. I looked that way at the hundreds of people lining the sidewalks outside the Denver Rescue Mission’s Lawrence Street Shelter, which provides emergency care to anyone experiencing homelessness. It was a potent reminder that, despite the words on the cheerful mural, the city isn’t so lovely for everyone.

That lesson isn’t lost on James Carlson and Erin Spradlin, the husband-and-wife duo (and co-owners of James Carlson Real Estate) who created the Denver Graffiti Tour. Spradlin welcomed us to the tour, and as we moved away from the mural, the singing man, and the homeless shelter, she veered the conversation away from the area’s artistic side, and instead detailed the rise in both commercial real estate value and the city’s homeless population.

“We want this to be an education about the artistic process and to make this into a sort of ‘Best Day in Denver’ kind of experience,” Spradlin says. Carlson chimes in: “But we do want to talk about this idea of change in both art and in the neighborhood we’re walking through.”

Spradlin and Carlson were inspired to create a graffiti tour in Denver after attending a similar excursion in Colombia. Their preparation—from interviews with street artists to digging through news articles—clearly pays off. As we moved from piece to piece, Spradlin shared personal stories about the artwork and its artists, which helped to shed new light on works I was otherwise unfamiliar with. The pair confidently educated visitors on the nuanced differences between street art and graffiti, along with pointing out how to recognize quality work in both forms.

For most of the tour, Carlson and Spradlin talked about the artwork. Spradlin says she hopes people feel like they’ve been “let in on the secret” that street art can feel like it holds. But I was grateful that Spradlin and Carlson didn’t shirk the difficult conversations—such as Ink! Coffee’s sign debacle this past November, or tensions between the minority-owned Joe’s Liquors store and surrounding businesses.

Those conversations, small though they may be, were enough to help make this tour feel like it did right by the artists—and the community.

If you go: The Denver Graffiti Tour runs Friday through Monday (once on Friday and Monday; twice on Saturday and Sunday), starting on May 4. Reservations should be made in advance. The tour starts at 2314 N. Broadway and ends at the Denver Central Market, and it won’t run longer than two hours. Call 720-583-5154 for more information.