Nearly 20 years ago, Ryan Otis ran afoul of the law.
At the time, he was a high school freshman living in Aurora, and he had taken an interest in a distinctly urban art form.
“Those were my illicit, illegal graffiti days,” Otis said.
Late one night in 1991, Otis was spray-painting an exterior wall of a Denver grocery store.
He got busted.
“It was a bad deal,” he said.
Otis went through the court system, paid fines and court fees, and later performed an awkward form of contrition.
“I had to back down to the store owner,” Otis said. “My parents made me apologize and clean off the wall.”
Otis said the experience scared him straight.
“Oh, yeah, I’m on a completely different page now,” he said. “I learned my lesson. One time was all it took. It’s not fun being arrested.”
Otis is still a graffiti artist, however. It’s just that these days, he’s more likely to get paid for his work than booked.
On a recent lunch break from his day job as a plumber, Otis stood in his home studio in the Ridgeview neighborhood in Craig.
The studio, a compact bedroom with a glimpse of eastern light, is covered in Otis’ colorful art. Nearly every square inch bears his touch, whether it be framed mixed-media pieces, squares of canvas, photographs or sculptures.
The only blank spaces are the floor and ceiling. Even a corner of the ceiling is decorated by paint from a mural whose scope grew beyond the adjacent walls.
“I do a little bit of everything,” he said of his artistic inclinations.
Otis, now a 33-year-old husband and father, said he spends nearly every night in the studio. Lately, he is averaging one finished piece per day.
Otis attributes his speed to his early days. After all, graffiti artists who aren’t quick tend to get nabbed.
Otis was born in Craig, and has spent most of his life in the community.
In his early teens and 20s, however, he spent some time in urban areas. His father, who worked in the airlines, moved the family to Aurora for a brief time.
From there, Otis frequently traveled to Chicago, where he developed a love for urban artwork while riding the elevated trains.
“Me and my buddies would copy the stuff we saw,” he said. “Then, we started doing our own thing.”
After the arrest in Denver, Otis’ family moved back to Craig. There, he took an art class at Moffat County High School.
Otis said his teacher, Jay Peck, encouraged his urban style.
“He was pretty much one of a kind,” Otis said of Peck. “He let me do my own thing, but also showed me a bunch of stuff.
“I only took art for a semester. That’s all I’ve ever taken.”
After high school, Otis moved to Fresno, Calif., and fell into a crowd of like-minded artists, whom Otis described as world-renowned.
There, he honed his craft.
This time, however, the works were legitimate. Otis and his fellow graffiti artists painted on “permission walls.”
Otis said he would scour the city looking for blank walls. When he found one, he would contact the owner seeking permission. The efforts were surprisingly successful, he said.
“You can just ask, and more often than not people will let you do it,” Otis said. “There’s an outlet out there.”
Marriage and children brought Otis back to Craig five years later. He settled into work and family life, and for a brief time, he thought his artistic life was over.
“But, it was pretty much quite the opposite,” he said.
Otis found a classified ad in the Steamboat Pilot & Today seeking a graffiti artist to paint a wall mural for a youth group.
“It was the most bizarre thing that I’ve ever seen,” Otis said of the ad. “I was like, ‘Holy crap.’”
Otis was hired to do the mural, and his finished work gathered attention from American Ski Company, then-owners of Steamboat Resort.
“I painted three different ski shops for them…right in Gondola Square,” Otis said. “I got free snowboard gear and free lift tickets for about three years.”
Most recently, Otis was commissioned by two unlikely art patrons.
Otis said he is in the midst of painting a basement mural for an older couple that is building a game room for their grandchildren.
Otis said he is charging $700 for the piece.
“I try to be fair,” he said of his prices.
But, getting paid doesn’t mean Otis’ days of painting for free are over. Last year, he was granted permission to paint an exterior wall at Craig City Park.
The project, which is nearing completion, hit a rough patch on day 1, when Otis’ art career nearly came full circle.
Minutes after beginning the project, Otis said six officers from the Craig Police Department approached him.
As they did, one of them recognized Otis and immediately understood the painting was permitted.
“And he’s just laughing,” Otis recalled of the officer. “He said, ‘Painting some graffiti again, Ryan?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I was wondering when you guys were going to show up.’”
Otis said a concerned neighbor had called the police.
On one hand, Otis said he was pleased the authorities were notified.
“It’s good that people are out watching for that,” he said. “It’s almost comforting that someone called.”
On the other hand, Otis said he was bemused by the attention.
“I love the fact that just because you do graffiti, you’re bad,” he said. “I’m a father of two girls. I’m not a gang-banger or anything. I’ve known people like that, but whatever.
“That’s not me.”
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