Robin Munro cut his teeth in the graffiti, skateboarding and hip-hop scenes and has since transitioned into painting commissioned murals, running CRUSH Walls (one of the country’s largest street art festivals), opening a brand-new gallery in Denver’s RiNo Art District and sculpting with the goal of creating even more large-scale public work.
As the founder, CEO and president of CRUSH Walls, Robin Munro grew the festival over the past 10 years with the support of local, national and international artists, and succeeded in putting Denver’s street art scene on the map.
In our conversation, we talk about:
- What a successful street art festival application looks like
- How CRUSH can be a launching pad for an artist’s career
- Why he’s transitioning into sculpting
Can you give us a quick overview of your background as an artist?
I was inspired by art at a young age, my mom was an artist. I was into comic books, skateboarding.
Went to Warren Tech for graphic design when I was in high school and continued my education at the Art Institute.
Worked for a long time while I was in college and as a young adult doing construction and it phased into decorative painting, like faux finishing. I was working for a couple different companies doing that and I did a lot of really high-end residential work.
At the same time I was painting murals and doing graffiti a lot, skating, just being a wild kid. But it all kind of meshed together and I was kind of going more towards the commercial side of murals, exterior stuff, just trying to phase out of the whole residential side of things, which is great money and a great career path, but I wanted to be out in the public eye a lot more.
So a lot of my work was on local bars and restaurants. I would do group shows and events at venues.
What year was that roughly?
It had to be 2008, 2009, the first one we did.
With all of those experiences I was really inspired to move away a little bit from the gallery scene. I was really into graffiti and street art and that was my main focus.
A lot of the places I was working at, like Snooze [restaurant] or Horseshoe Lounge, I started working deals where I would paint the building one to four times a year. It would be consistent work and revenue so that I could refresh and practice, have a space where I could come up with new things each time.
That started snowballing with more businesses and word of mouth was the only way I got all my work. I barely even signed anything — I just felt weird leaving my phone number or something like that on the side of someone’s building.
This is right around when Facebook was coming around and there was no Instagram yet so if they really wanted to figure out how to get a hold of me as the artist, they would have to go in the building and ask someone. So it kind of cut out that static that you might receive by just putting your name out there.
That’s great. What happened next?
I was a resident artist at EXDO Event Center and I’d do all the murals inside Tracks. Then they offered the alleyway for me to paint, which was the smoking area and an outdoor space for the venue and I was really inspired to do an event.
So the first year I did a weekend-long event in the alleyway. They gave me $2,000 which was enough to get paint for everyone and pay for a flight, so we flew out this artist, Scribe, who works with the DF Crew, and kind of featured them as our first artists. We all painted, had a breakdancing competition, a beat machine and beatboxing battle. It was all hip-hop culture with our main focus on the street art.
Shortly after that I met this gentleman Ken Wolf who was a real estate developer in this area and owned this property [CRUSH’s studio and gallery in Denver’s RiNo Art District]. I told him of my vision and he was totally into it so I started doing events here at this space.
Then it started growing each year and we had more and more artists and new businesses who wanted to be a part of [the CRUSH mural event] and it naturally grew to the point where one year it was all graffiti-based. It got a little wild, a little hairy, it was a lot of graffiti. It was getting a little bit of static from some of the people who were involved in the event and in the community so I’ve switched to curating more street art and doing that sort of stuff, bringing people in who were not just from a graffiti background but had fine art degrees.
I think about the fourth year RiNo Art District came along and asked to get involved and help sponsor the event and support what we are doing. So they’ve been a huge proponent of the evolution of it in the last four years, providing a much larger scope of work and budget and helping in many different avenues to grow the event.
I’ve also been trying to make Denver a destination spot for art. The norm for the longest time was like, We made it good here, now we’ll move to New York or LA. But now this is one of the hottest spots to be and this is where people want to come and visit — the economy is good, the city is beautiful, there’s no crime, there’s the mountains, the weather is amazing, there’s legal weed, there’s tons of breweries, there’s the outdoors. It’s an awesome spot so it’s great to see now that it’s gotten to that level.
Now I’m opening a gallery so I have a place to showcase not only my work but other people’s work. And I’ve got a beautiful studio space that I’m sharing with amazing local artists, some gentlemen just one generation above me who are well known in the game and can give me some guidance.
With the new space I’ve been able to refocus again on my own work which has been nice. Because a lot of my work has been collaborating with everyone, turning things on and activating.
I’ve started working in more of a 3D realm sculpting and I want to take baby steps towards doing larger public art and large casts in bronze and, you know, in the next five to ten years, I could really change the direction of my work and the scope of my work to the 3D element. I can work on fabricating, learning the process. It’s fun.
I love painting murals but I grew up doing construction and working with my hands a lot so I love the idea of being able to work with both hands at the same time.
In addition to your own work, you’re also the founder, CEO and President of the CRUSH WALLS Festival, which stands for Creative Rituals Under Social Harmony. Can you give us a quick overview of that event and how you juggle the different roles?
So that looks like a lot of different things. Mostly I’m taking a more curational standpoint and getting more people and the community involved. Dealing with where the artists are gonna paint, who they’re gonna paint with, having their walls and gear all set up, stuff like that.
I personally don’t like trying to deal with sponsorships or trying to get money from people or having meetings about how much walls are going to cost. I hate that side of business, which is why I think a lot of artists aren’t very good at the business side of things, because they don’t like it either. But that’s changing more and more, people are becoming more savvy with the business side of things.
Now the district has a huge part in finding sponsorships and helping the event go in a bigger direction more smoothly so it’s nice to be able to sit back a little bit and have a team of people to work with who have common interests and goals and love it for what it is.
But it’s interesting, there are so many different walks of life that I encounter daily. Working with huge developers and people with political influence and a lot of weight within the community, to local artists who are just emerging, to veteran artists, to artists who are very street-oriented and aggressive.
It’s been challenging too because I’ve had to let go of some of my own biased opinions and purist graffiti idealisms because they were very urban, gritty, raw. I mean, it’s the only art form practiced within the elements [of hip-hop] that you could get arrested for doing. It’s the only one that carries a felony charge.
It’s like, Who are these new jacks coming in? Who are these softies who’ve never spent a day on the streets? I mean, it’s still graffiti and its nature is aggressive and competitive. So just letting go of these different things that don’t really serve you.
So yeah, that’s kind of the role now. I want to make sure it’s not just “The Robin Show,” like, Hey check out this thing I’m doing. But instead that the community at large is building these connections and everyone is benefiting from it. So, instead it’s like, Check out this thing we are doing.
It’s been really cool to see how much it’s evolved, not only the neighborhood itself, but the culture and the artists, new and old, and also getting more females involved.
Since you do split your time between personal work and running CRUSH, what percentage of your income comes from each?
A significant amount of income comes from both and I would say it’s probably 50/50. There’s canvases and projects and jobs for my own personal work and then the other part is CRUSH.
I have a set base salary that I’m paid for CRUSH and I’m contractually obligated to have certain deliverables for the event. That’s why it’s a year-long thing and anything good, bad or indifferent I take to heart.
I’d like to be doing more of the 3D work that I’m inspired to do because I feel like that work has a lot more longevity and I think it’ll feed my passion more. My creative passion’s starting to dwindle a little bit because let’s face it, each year after CRUSH I need about a month off of work. Because it’s herding cats with paint, you know? And there’re so many different egos, walks of life.
It was only three years ago that I actually started seeing any kind of financial gain after all the years I put in and all the leg work, like paying for a website each year, getting a new logo. So this being the 10th year, I’m actually somewhat comfortable with what I’m doing and making enough to not be struggling. I have my family and stuff so not being worried like, Oh my god, what if I don’t get this job that I applied for and someone else gets it?
Applying for work and getting grants is a huge thing in our industry and hopefully within the next five or ten years I can have a strong group of four to five local artists who can attack bigger projects and apply for bigger grants and community-based stuff.
That’s partly why I want to do the 3D work too, because for paintings they’re like, We have $40,000 or $20,000, but for this sculptural installation we have $300,000. I’d love to be able to have sculptural installation stuff be my main bread and butter.
CRUSH is kind of taking flight and I can just help with curation and not worry about going after money for that event. It can sustain itself hopefully at some point. If not, maybe it won’t matter because I’ll be doing all this 3D work instead.
I feel like if your heart is in it and you have good intentions and you’re helping not just yourself but the community, you’ll be pretty successful.
That’s awesome. What’s your creative process like and does it depend on whether you’re painting or sculpting?
I’ve got a couple of different ones. One is where I’m just freestyling, where I have an idea — whether it’s from a dream or interaction — and it’s very loose and free forming. Like this [points to the mural in the photo below] was inspired by a gentleman who passed away whose nickname was Turtle.
People wanted to hold an event in here to celebrate his life and I came up with this. I free-handed it. I just looked at a couple of images of turtles and sketched that out. I didn’t tape anything off, it’s just clean, you know?
And sculpting is all freestyle now, whatever’s inspiring me. A couple sculptures have been from dreams, a couple are comic-based stuff. This is sort of a passion project thing still, so there’s a lot more creative freedom.
Then there are projects I apply for or commissions where someone wants a specific piece and I’m doing a lot more back and forth with content and conceptual ideas. A lot of my mural work started in residential and commercial stuff, which was more bringing someone else’s vision to life. It’s fun and rewarding but it also can be very draining, much like tattooing where you’re creating for someone else. With tattooing it’s almost like you need to be a therapist you deal with so many emotional things. And it’s a breathing, shitting, complaining canvas, you know? It’s moving, it’s got feelings and emotions.
I like both but I prefer this [points to turtle mural].
It’s nice to be able to have a passion project that will eventually turn into more of a career direction for me. Because CRUSH is becoming more of a job to me. It’s not just fun like painting a canvas, it’s dealing with so many different elements and the business side of things.
How much of your paid work do you have full creative freedom versus having to work within a client’s guidelines?
I’m able to select a little more work that gives me more artistic freedom. But there’re still jobs that I’ll take on for benefits and for festivals and stuff like that that are sometimes geared in a certain direction.
When it comes to doing a flat rate versus charging by the square footage, do you generally skew one way or the other?
If a local business reaches out to me for their company party and they want a temporary wall painted or some kind of activation to make it fun, typically I’ll do the supply plus a daily rate. Like a thousand bucks a day is typically what I would go for, plus supply.
But if it’s a small commission for the community or a benefit for a good cause or for a good friend who’s continued to work with me, I’m willing to be more flexible and maybe do it for less than I’d normally charge.
Square footage-wise, I typically like to do that for murals, installations, stuff like that. On the low end, if I’m working with a local school or a non-profit, the lowest I could ever go is $10 a square foot. But it ranges and some work I’ve done I’m actually making $50 to $60 a square foot.
Sometimes I’ll do an installation or a painting in two or three hours and I’m like, Cool, I made $600 or $1000 for this event, that’s a great hourly rate. But then I’m like, Well no, I spent all that time before that emailing and gathering supplies and this, that and the other.
What about contracts? Do you have them and do you take deposits for some of the larger jobs?
I do, I do. I usually ask for at least half down in contracts unless it’s someone I’ve already worked with several times and there’s that relationship built.
But typically, everything is contractual. If I haven’t worked with someone before, a lot of times I won’t even give people design or conceptual stuff until I’m under contract.
There are a lot of people who are in the music industry that are aggressive and just shopping for art and artists. They’re looking for the biggest bang for the smallest amount of money spent and they don’t even realize they may be causing friction within the artist community, you know?
Because those artists in the community are all very close and if one of them undercuts the other or sells themselves short, it affects everyone. It’s an interesting dynamic when that occurs. It’s like, Oh so-and-so got that job that I was bidding on too.
So it’s trying to bring the community and people closer together within this industry so we can have these conversations and kind of set an industry standard. Which is hard though, because people who are just coming up, they’re hungry, they’re willing to work for less. You don’t want them to cut themselves short because we expect them to stay at a certain price range even though we’ve been doing it for 25, 30 years and they’ve been doing it for 6 or 10.
It’s a delicate balance and it’s really interesting being embedded on both sides of that conversation, just trying to work with others to figure out solutions that would make our lives a little easier.
You mentioned that it’s not just the finished product you need to account for and spend time on, it’s also all of these other things and administrative tasks that go into it. So how much time would you say is spent on actually creating the art as opposed to what happens in the backend, like negotiating, doing RFPs, taxes?
Man, it fluctuates during your career I think.
For me right now there’s been a lot more on the business side as opposed to creating because it’s been so focused on not just my own artwork and career but on the business side of opening the gallery and what that looks like, activating spaces and doing CRUSH.
If I’ve done enough work during the summer and mural season to where I can float through and be financially sound during the winter, it will shift a little bit to where I can do more of my passion projects. And in the beginning of the year, there’s more call for entries and more people working on their spending and what they’re going to be doing for the following year.
There’s also way more work to do on the social media side. That’s why you get a lot of artists who are so tired of doing that that they hire a manager to take on that stuff.
I would like to go in the direction of having a team that can execute bigger murals and that’s definitely part of having that shared space and working with Jason [Garcia] and Patrick [Kane McGregor]. We all have a very different, unique aesthetic to our work, but I think we could potentially build a group of guys who can execute some amazing things and push the envelope a little further out here.
From the marketing standpoint for your own work, are you mainly focused on Instagram, networking or how does that work for you?
Word of mouth is still one of the best. It creates a lot of opportunities and even call for entries and different jobs, it’s still a little inner circle of people. You may know someone who is on the committee or they may know someone who knows someone who is on the committee.
Word of mouth is probably one of the better things to have going for you, still to this day.
Instagram is the number one way for me to promote what CRUSH is doing because we’re a visual community. And it’s great because it’s basically your online resumé, you can update on the fly and lead someone to that really easily.
But it also kind of sucks because it’s kind of diluting a lot of stuff and it’s hard to tell what’s authentic. I don’t know, it has its ups and downs. It was a free platform for people to do their thing but now they want you to pay to boost your posts so it’s becoming what it wasn’t, you know?
I have my qualms with that and the way our culture is going but you have to kind of move the way society is moving. Artificial intelligence is going to take over everything, it’s inevitable.
Yeah, totally. [Laughter]
But you know, in reality, artwork — it’s predictive. Some of those things like The Terminator, The Matrix, people were like, Oh that’s crazy. Now it’s not too far-fetched from what we know.
It’s like the age-old question: Is art influencing life or life influencing art? It’s interesting, I get caught up in that kind of stuff.
When it comes to Instagram, some of our Allies have told us they sell pieces or get commissions there. Do you get many commissioned pieces or work from that or is it mainly from word of mouth?
You know, I get quite a bit of work from social media, Instagram, Facebook connections and stuff like that. I would say it’s starting to be like maybe a third word of mouth, people reaching out directly, and then probably two-thirds through the social channels.
A lot of the stuff I do get comes from social media and people who find me through CRUSH.
Social media is definitely a huge part of it, but even then, I think word of mouth is connected to social media in a lot of senses because someone will say, So and so does this you should check out her Instagram. It’s just like your resume.
Social media I feel is good for quick flips. If you’re doing studio work and you have prints, if that’s one of your main sources of revenue, it’s a great way to make money.
But for me, I want to go for larger projects and installations. And I think as I start applying for public art and stuff like that, I’ll probably be dealing less with people reaching out directly. I think in the next five or ten years it’s going to teeter in a different direction.
Are those calls for entries you’re applying for percentages for the arts or something else?
Yeah, government-funded stuff like a new library, but the call for entries could be anything on CaFÉ [an online system for call for entries submissions]. They have a set price range, a description of the type of work, and then you apply for it and they can approve it or not.
A lot of those bigger-ticket projects are more call-for-entry-based because a lot of times these people don’t know exactly what they want. So instead of trying to research all these different options and reach out to different artists, it’s easier for them to just provide the opportunity for all these artists to apply through this one channel that is known to the artist community.
Now that you’re 10 years into CRUSH, what is it that continues to drive you to keep doing it?
I think what mainly drives me now is I want to build a network of people who are doing events like CRUSH.
There’s this group from Scotland with The Great Wall Project and they have enough momentum now where they want to start doing a festival and bring more international talent. So what I want to do more is build these bridges and try to create almost like an artist exchange — where we bring artists from Scotland or Texas or wherever here for CRUSH and then they bring a couple of artists from here to there.
And it’s great if it’s able to give me the freedom to work on my own passion projects and it’s financially supporting another side of my art. I’d like to be able to travel more, experience other places and other people who are doing the same kind of stuff.
When it comes to the artists who are applying for CRUSH, what do successful applications look like? What makes someone stand out?
We’ve mostly done a local call for entry because we want people who are in this culture, in this neighborhood, to have that voice.
First, I look at their work. A lot of people are coming in with a lot of abstracts and animal figures and a lot of it is sort of the same. I like seeing artists who may not have done this stuff much but who are refined enough that they can take it to the next level and showcase their work to potentially use this as a platform to launch off of.
To me that’s the really fun part of this, is seeing new artists emerging and being able to jump into working within a huge community of people all at once.
In the call for entry I’m also looking at, Is it believable? Aesthetically, does it work? Did it work for me? And where can I put their work? Being very selective in that process.
And then also their approach to applying, their verbiage. What is their Instagram like? What does it feel like? Do they have a good feel about them? Do they look like they’ll be fun to work with and they’ll be in good spirits? Or are they gonna be a prima donna and be difficult, where nothing is good enough type of thing?
With newer people it’s like, Can they pull this off? They can’t be amateur and not able to be self-starters. If I’m going to take that risk on them, are they going to be able to really step up or will I feel like I’m going to have to babysit them the whole time?
So it’s a lot of personality. And even within my crew, my group of friends, a lot of times skill can take a backseat when people are fun to work with.
I don’t want anyone who’s going to be like, I feel entitled, I should be in this. That doesn’t sit well with me.
Have there been any major success stories? People who got their start during CRUSH and used it as kind of a launching pad for their careers?
Totally, yeah. Like Anna Charney, her first wall was at CRUSH. She’d recently graduated from college and did an apprenticeship with me. She’d already had her aesthetics and look down and was really skilled so it was more of me kind of introducing her to the cultural scene and the application of spray paint on a larger scale. She’s just sky-rocketed since then.
Detour, he’d done large paintings but the first wall he ever did was during CRUSH.
Pat Milbery, some of the bigger stuff I kind of coached him a little bit but I definitely learned a lot from him too along the way.
So it sounds like CRUSH is a great launching pad.
It’s a great launching pad for people. Each year it feels like there’s someone new who’s able to use this as a launch pad for their career and really take off.
Even myself, I contribute my ability to meet other people and share this passion. And as much as I think it’s inspired other people and been a launch pad, it inspired me so much in an equal sense.
I enjoy working with this type of design. It’s challenging trying to freehand an image that’s balanced and 3D. Spray paint on stucco surface. —Robin Munro
Do you have any additional advice for other artists?
I know this is the hardest thing in the world but don’t take it personal. That’s it.
When you’re an artist you’re an empath most of the time. I don’t think we feel more deeply than other people, but I think it affects our work more deeply. Especially the way the world is today, with social media and stuff, it’s so easy to be affected.
So not taking it personal. It’s the hardest thing but probably the best advice.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work courtesy of the artist. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- Anna Charney — artist
- The Art Institutes
- CaFÉ — Call For Entry and Application Management for the Arts
- CRUSH WALLS — Denver Mural Festival
- DF Crew
- EXDO Event Center
- Jason Garcia — artist
- Pat Milbery + So-Gnar Collective
- Patrick Kane McGregor — artist
- RiNo – River North Art District
- Scribe — artist
- Thomas “Detour” Evans — artist
- Tracks — dance club
- Warren Tech