Colorado’s ‘Street Wise Boulder’ Showcases Arts-Driven Social Activism

Celebrating Women in Science by muralists A.L. Grime and JUSTinSpire.

More than thirty street art murals recently appeared across Boulder, Colorado, created for the second annual Street Wise Boulder festival. From large-scale pieces transforming walls of shuttered businesses to colorful pops of art in doorways, the festival brings socially-driven art to people where they live, work, and hang out. The event also supports a diverse group of local and internationally known artists. And it might not have happened without help from the cannabis industry.

Overcoming funding challenges

Street Wise Boulder launched in 2019 with robust support from restaurants and event venues that were thriving in the booming economy. Founder Leah Brenner Clack’s goal for the mural festival was to spread ARTivisim, using the power of art to create connection, spark change, and build empathy within the community.


In 2020, Clack faced a completely different landscape as planning took place. The walls were there, ready to be painted. However, many of the previous year’s supporters were struggling for their very existence in the face of pandemic shutdowns.

“We had a lot of great walls lined up, but not the funding support, which pushed us to expand our sponsorship and fundraising efforts,” Clack said. “Through our community connections, we connected with several local cannabis companies that were excited to provide support, including Wana Brands, Terrapin Care Station, and 14er Boulder. As a result, we were able to bring more artists in, create more joy, and amplify messages around activism and social justice issues.”

Patrick Kane McGregor paints his iconic bulldog on Hoxxoh’s kaleidoscopic background.

Participating artists were thankful for the work after seeing many other gigs dry up. Brandon Opalka saw multiple shows in New York City, Miami, and France canceled due to the pandemic. Now, he’s focused on finding gigs closer to home while juggling family duties, since schools have pivoted to remote learning. As he worked on his collaboration with Douglas “Hoxxoh” Hoekzema over the weekend, his children rode bikes around the vacant parking lot and chatted with other artists, many of whom are also family friends.

“The pandemic has been a struggle for all of us,” Opalka said. “Some days are overwhelming, but you just have to keep pushing through. In general, I think we will come out of this stronger.”

That sentiment is reflected in the collaborative mural featuring Opalka’s lighthouse in front of Hoxxoh’s signature gyrating color patterns. “The mural can be seen as a metaphor for what’s going on in society right now,” Opalka said. “Are we being a lighthouse, helping each other?”

Scaling corporate social responsibility

Even during good times, giving back to the community was a priority for Boulder-based Wana Brands, a producer of cannabis-infused edibles. The company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) plan incentivizes employee volunteerism and commits to spearhead between four and six community events each year.

Soon after the pandemic hit, cannabis was deemed an essential service by Colorado and other legal states. Wana Chief Executive Officer Nancy Whiteman’s first priority was to ensure the safety of Wana employees while also maintaining production of essential cannabis products on which patients and adult-use consumers depend.

Once essential functions were covered, Whiteman shifted her attention to the community. The pandemic exacerbated many issues that already were on Wana’s radar, including homelessness and hunger. But other needs emerged as well. The impact of restaurant closures was felt across multiple industries including the arts. Entertainment venues closed; concerts and community festivals were canceled. The closures were necessary in the face of the pandemic, yet they also deeply impacted morale at the very moment when community was more important than ever.

Work in progress by Secret Skwadron’s “Guts,” inspired by Denver’s Old West heritage.

“Supporting the arts made perfect sense for us,” Whiteman said. “Cannabis and the arts have a shared history of providing relief, relaxation, and camaraderie. The arts and the cannabis industry are also leaders in raising awareness about important issues during uncertain times.

“The pandemic’s impact has been catastrophic for many people,” she added. “Due to our essential designation, the cannabis industry has an obligation to help and, in this case, we also saw an opportunity to demonstrate how cannabis is a legitimate, responsible partner that communities can depend upon.”

The arts and cannabis share a role as pioneers in the community. When Clack launched Street Wise, she encountered misconceptions similar to those cannabis has endured. “When you say the word ‘street art,’ many people don’t know what that means,” she said. “In Boulder, street art didn’t really exist a few years ago, and many people didn’t understand the work muralists do. Now that we’re in our second year, we’ve created a new understanding of the positivity street art murals can bring to communities.”

Wana’s involvement in Street Wise Boulder inspired other cannabis companies to throw in their support as well. Terrapin co-sponsored several locations and made a significant donation to local live music performance venues, while 14er Boulder sponsored a wall on its property.

In addition to Street Wise Boulder, Wana also supported an art installation in Denver’s Highlands neighborhood in August, with muralists and performance artists collaborating to create a safe, immersive, imaginative experience for the community.

Amplifying activism, equity, and sustainability

The cannabis industry’s partnership with Street Wise Boulder demonstrates how cannabis can help uplift diverse voices during challenging times. The festival’s focus on social activism dovetailed perfectly with Wana’s and other partners’ commitment to inclusivity and social equity and advanced other issues upon which cannabis is focused, including sustainability and community-building.

Street Wise utilized an open call for applications and a thoughtful, intentional selection process to ensure a wide range of voices and experiences were represented. Artists weren’t limited to a particular topic for their murals but instead were given the freedom to express whatever they felt needed to be shared during this unique point in time.

Jessica Moon Bernstein-Schiano explored themes of climate change, social justice, and hope in her mural.

Their diversity is reflected in the walls, including at the vacant Old Liquor Mart site sponsored by Wana and Terrapin. At that location, artist Jessica Moon Bernstein-Schiano combined climate change, social justice, and hope into a striking mural featuring a black and white polar bear print that is wheat-pasted onto a wall using a technique fellow Art Wise creator Koko Bayer shared with her. Bernstein hopes her mural will stick in peoples’ minds, encouraging them to speak out by voting for initiatives and candidates who support climate preservation and social justice.

Other artists struck a more sentimental vibe. J Guts (aka “Guts”) from the Secret Skwadron crew created a piece titled “Dimestore Cowboy” inspired by Denver’s Old West heritage. As the city grew rapidly and transformed, much of its frontier history faded away. The Dimestore Cowboy mural exudes a rustic noir vibe that recalls the region’s recent history.

For Guts, the connection between cannabis, art, and creativity is clear. His appreciation for the plant is personal, as someone who uses cannabis medically to manage a chronic health condition and keep his energy level up.

Chris Haven, another member of the Secret Skwadron, also contributed to the Old Liquor Mart walls, superimposing a colorful translucent paper crane on top of a two-dimensional black-and-white cityscape as a symbol of hope and healing. His signature cheerful and mischievous Pyramid People also pop up across other Street Wise locations and in collaborations with Bayer.

On other walls throughout Boulder, artists paid homage to the contributions of Black, Indigenous, and people of color throughout history. East Coast-based Victor “MARKA27” Quinonez produced a massive mural titled “1846” recognizing indigenous cultures that thrived in Colorado prior to the Mexican-American war. The artwork is featured on the side of a Boulder Housing Partners property, adding color and conversation to a previously drab parking lot.

Victor “MARKA27” Quinonez’s 1846 pays homage to Colorado’s Indigenous cultures.

Fox Theater’s alley wall celebrates the contributions of Black women to science in a striking mural featuring Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson by Giovannie (aka “JUSTinSpire”) and Ally Grimm (aka A.L. Grime). At a different site, JUSTinSpire collaborated with Hiero Viega, Thomas “Detour” Evans, and Cya X on a portrait of Sandra Bland as part of the #SprayTheirName project.

The art brings the conversation to the public as people walk, bike, or drive by.

“These murals provide art that is open to the community twenty-four hours a day,” Opalka said. “It doesn’t go away. You don’t have to make an appointment to see it. That’s the beauty of outdoor murals.”

Keeping arts alive

While Street Wise’s colorful murals make outdoor art accessible right now, there’s also a need to preserve art and music venues for the future, when live in-person performances safely resume. These venues likely will be among the last to reopen as restrictions are lifted.

Terrapin and the nonprofit Colorado Music Experience (CoME) have a longstanding partnership dedicated to preserving the state’s music history. Terrapin also established a partnership with Z2 Entertainment, which owns and operates Boulder’s historic Fox Theater and Boulder Theater where Terrapin hosted numerous events over the years.

“When we learned about how the pandemic was impacting the arts community, particularly the music organizations that we’ve partnered with, we wanted to step up,” said Terrapin Communications Director Peter Marcus. “Losing the musical backbone in the Boulder community would be devastating for all of us.”

The company took the unusual step of offering jobs to some laid-off Fox and Boulder theater employees, creating a lifeline for the workers and their families. The cannabis company also committed $30,000 to the theaters and CoME to help ensure arts venues survive pandemic-related closures and come out stronger on the other side.

Supporting the Street Walls festival was a natural extension to these efforts and aligned with Terrapin’s CSR philosophy, which is built on forging authentic relationships and supporting local programs. Much of Terrapin’s current work focuses on social equity; the company is a founding member of the Cannabis Impact Fund and actively works with other organizations that are addressing systemic racism.

Building community engagement

As murals across Boulder came to life, pedestrians and bicyclists stopped to watch the artists and ask questions. What is this festival about? What does this piece represent? Who is supporting this work?

Clack said the response from the community was overwhelmingly positive. “Many people are excited about how the art adds to the community’s vibrancy,” she said. “But beyond that, people are enthusiastic about the murals’ messages and the artists who created them. Being able to watch the process unfold and meet the artists definitely adds value and helps people more deeply connect to the issues the murals bring up.”

In large part, the conversations are happening because of support from the cannabis industry. “The reason we exist today as a safe, legal, essential industry is largely the result of community support, with citizen-sponsored initiatives paving the way for medical and adult-use cannabis at the state level in Colorado and elsewhere,” Whiteman said. “Now, it’s our turn to show up for the community.”


Denise Gonzalez-Walker is a Colorado-based writer with a keen interest in cannabis trends and innovations. Her background includes journalism, public health research, health communications, and marketing. Every day she connects people to information and resources that will improve their lives and ease their pain or worry is a good day.