Street art installations raise city's ire


The city is considering issuing citations for trespassing and destruction of property to a Los Angeles-based artist who affixed his work to the side of some of Aspen’s most historically significant buildings.

Kai Aspire, identified in a letter from the city attorney’s office as Kai Guetta, was in town last week in conjunction with the Art Aspen show at the Aspen Ice Garden. He used an adhesive to place eight cement-relief pieces on the exteriors of seven buildings, including the Hotel Jerome, Elks and Prada. The pieces, small- to medium-sized wall hangings, depict a featureless figure in confrontation with forces holding back a yearning for love, wisdom and freedom.

“When I traveled to Aspen, I felt like spreading a little love through handmade cement sculptures,” Guetta wrote in an email, noting that he is a street artist who has been on display in cities and museums in the United States and Europe.

“Luckily I don't spread love with a spray paint can and a quick tag!” he wrote. “I thought that these cement reliefs, with their positive messages and ornate framing, would be accepted and give viewers a little special treat in their day.”

The gestures are indeed a special treat for the city of Aspen’s historic preservation officer Amy Simon, but likely not in the way Guetta intended. Acknowledging that Guetta appears to be a “accomplished artist” with “meaningful” work, Simon said the method employed in downtown Aspen could damage historic buildings and is “not helpful.”

Removing the adhesive will likely erode the surface of the brick, Simon said, causing it to absorb more water, which is “not a good thing.”

A hard-edge tool was used to take one of Guetta’s pieces off the Mill Street facade of the Jerome, which required the destruction of the piece. Subtle discoloration is visible on the brick in four disc-shaped markings. Engraved initials from decades gone by are also visible near the Main Street corner where the image briefly hung.

Simon said her research shows that the best way to remove the adhesive is to use a heat gun to soften it, then a taut wire to separate it from the wall.

Assistant city attorney Andrea Bryan sent Guetta a letter on Tuesday “to serve as a notice to you to cease any type of street art in the city unless the format is approved by the city.”

“We are very concerned about the permanent damage to historic buildings that may be left behind in the process of removing your work from historic masonry,” says the letter, which adds that Guetta violated municipal codes prohibiting trespassing and that protect the preservation of historic buildings.

“Any further actions on your part may result in a summons to Aspen Municipal Court and/or fines,” says the letter.

Simon clarified on Thursday that the city may pursue a municipal citation, should property owners wish to participate in a complaint by providing witness statements and documenting the cost of removal and repair. Any such determination will take a few weeks, she said.

“We do take it seriously, and we do consider it to be trespass and destruction of property,” Simon said.

Bryan’s letter also informs Guetta that the city “appreciates your interest in sharing art with the community” and welcomes his “ideas for public art that would not cause the kind of irreparable damage to historic buildings that we are concerned with.”

The pieces are still affixed to the Prada and Elks buildings, near the alley-side northwest corner on both. Simon said she spoke with the manager of the Elks property, who was “taken aback” and was until then unaware of the art stuck on the side of the building. An employee contacted at Prada also expressed surprise.

The art also was stuck to the side of the Tom Thumb building at 400 E. Hyman Ave., on the stucco near the top of the stairs in Gondola Plaza, near the east entrance to Starbucks in Gondola Plaza, and in two places at 112 S. Mill St., home to Radio boardshop.

Radio owner Travis McLain said he was in contact with the artist when he was in town and expressed admiration for the work. He encouraged the installation on the building where he does business and even paid for the shipping from Los Angeles of the piece near the entrance to the shop. It depicts a figure being lifted toward the sky by a heart but held to the ground by a bag of money.

Street art has always existed in a legal gray area but it can be a vibrant part of a community’s character, McLain said. He referenced a piece by Banksy, who used a stencil and spray paint on the side of a building in Park City, Utah, which embraced the work by framing it.

Guetta’s work enhances his non-historic building and reflects an image that fits with local business, McLain said.

Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle on Tuesday was also unaware of the piece stuck near the top of the Gondola Plaza stairs. However, once SkiCo personnel saw it, the piece was removed.

“I would say for us it wasn’t a big deal,” Hanle said. “We did take it down as permission wasn’t asked.”

He joked that the SkiCo touts the slogan “art in unexpected places” in promotion of its collaboration with numerous artists for everything from lift-ticket designs to those bird-nest-looking things at the top of Aspen Mountain.

“We do talk about art in unexpected places, but it’s our art in unexpected places. The least he could have done was asked,” Hanle said.