By Rocky Mountain PBS (via AP Storyshare)
The murals at Denver International Airport created by artist Leo Tanguma have drawn more attention for conspiracy theories than the artist’s actual intent in creating them. According to Tanguma, the images showing images of war and peace are meant to inspire onlookers toward hope.
DENVER — The iconic murals displayed at DIA created by Leo Tanguma have drawn attention from people around the world since the early 90’s. Unfortunately, much of the focus has been on the imagery of destruction rather than the storyline that ends with a vision of world peace.
Along with other elements of DIA (recently rebranded to DEN), conspiracy theories about the murals have gone viral – rumors of Nazi or Illuminati ties, and warnings of the “new world order.” While these claims are unfounded, they have made a significant impact on the lives of the artists.
“I need to see what’s wrong in society, and then reflect it in my murals. At the same time, I wanted to reflect what’s beautiful in society and in my community,” Tanguma said.
Artists Leo Tanguma and Cristal Darlina share the heartfelt intentions behind their murals
28 years after unveiling the murals, Tanguma spoke to Rocky Mountain PBS at his granddaughter’s home surrounded by family photos and artwork. His daughter and collaborator Leticia Darlina Tanguma was nearby offering emotional support, welling with pride as her father reflected on his artistic legacy.
“It was a spiritual awakening for me,” he added. “I’ve always been spiritual, I think. But those experiences moved me more to consider that what I had in my abilities was a God-given talent. And I think that was made important in those murals.”
The murals at the airport, now temporarily in storage, depict the terrors of war and pollution. Amongst the chaos is a group of sleeping children. From their minds extends a grey mist that turns into a rainbow, leading to a portrayal of an ideal world, entitled “In Harmony with Peace and Nature.”
Image courtesy: Denver International Airport
Despite the effort Tanguma, Darlina, and their supporters poured into the murals, the type of fame and recognition they received wasn’t what many artists pine for. Since their unveiling, conspiracy theories about the murals have run rampant.
Darlina learned about some of the rumors in the early 2000’s. She recalls hearing, “‘People hate that mural. They say, you wanted 9/11 because of that figure of war. They say that in the Bible, all these dirty animals are unclean. They say, ‘Why are you painting people in coffins?’ And, you know, just on and on where it became a terrible conspiracy.”
The delayed construction of the airport continued to feed rumors of secret underground networks, and with each new idea came a web of uncredible theories attempting to tie other works of art at the airport, like the mustang sculpture nicknamed “Blucifer,” to rumors of plotted terror.
People have profited from books and documentaries about the theories, but Tanguma and Darlina say they have rarely been asked about the actual meaning behind the murals.
And while many people find the conspiracies laughable (DIA has even turned some into a marketing opportunity), the consequences of these rumors are far from funny for the Tanguma family.
The Impact of the conspiracy theories
According to Darlina, the conspiracy theories started before the murals were even complete.
“We did have a few people come in at the time that were painting it. They said, ‘don’t paint this. There’s a new world order.’ We had no idea what they were talking about back then.” Darlina shared.
As soon as the conspiracy theories began, Tanguma lost two valuable commissions, and according to Darlina, both of them were harassed. Some people even resorted to death threats.
“People have said things like, ‘You need to destroy the art. You need to destroy the artist who did this,’” she recalled.
“I thought and I still think that these people are deranged,” said Tanguma. “For example, one religious minister called the mural satanic. Others said that they saw demons.”
Despite the airport allowing Darlina to have plaques installed explaining the murals, the conspiracies continued.
Darlina said that while people have the right to interpret art as they would like, it’s important to acknowledge the cruelty behind how these theories unfolded. She said that to overlook the important messages of peace, justice and hope the murals were meant to portray causes harm to entire communities.
“They’re [the conspiracies] destroying the artwork, too.” explained Darlina. “I’ve met other people that have been so depressed,” she continued, referring to people who feared the conspiracy theories were true.
Faces of our community
Family friend of the Tagumas, Cheryl Detwiler Mihaka, also helped create the murals. Taguma said that her talent combined with Darlina’s helped them portay a deep sense of compassion in their art.
“Both my daughter and Cheryl had experienced physical violence in relationships, so that also humanized them more,” he shared. “So, I had not only fantastically talented young women working with me, but also they brought me back to the spirituality of what we were trying to do.”
Leticia proudly poses by the mural (image courtesy Leticia Darlina Tanguma)
Tanguma also explained why he wanted the mural to come from the perspective of a child. “I think that there is a certain innocence among the oppressed, among the people that are uneducated, that don’t have access, practically, to life.”
Tanguma was also influenced by his work with youth who had been imprisoned, and others who were high schoolers that he painted alongside.
“I think that my connection with painting with young people, there’s been that that I’ve seen the possibilities and I’ve seen the destruction,” he summarized.
The focus of youth seemed to add to the draw of passers-by, who also impacted the direction of the murals. Between 1992 and 1995, Tanguma painted murals in a room in the Lakeside Mall. The combination of large panels and Mexican music drew in curious patrons.
Word spread of the work in progress, and parents asked for their children to be depicted in “Children of the World Dream of Peace.” Amongst the parents were some who had lost their children and asked Tanguma to memorialize them in the mural.
One mother asked for a depiction of her son who had recently passed from suicide, another whose daughter was killed while helping her friend escape an abusive situation. Some had lost their children to gang violence.
A clip from a Denver Post feature, mothers emotionally embracing after seeing their children memorialized in the murals.
Also featured in the mural was Tanguma’s young granddaughter, her cousins and classmates, and well-known children from around the world such as young activist Samantha Smith, (who passed in a plane crash), or brothers who marched for peace in Afghanistan. And while originally, he hadn’t planned to include political elements, Tanguma said the need to depict the injustices of war became apparent – an issue he was all too familiar with after having served in the military.
Connecting Colorado to the rest of the world
While painting the children, Tanguma asked for the families’ countries of origin, and depicted the children in the traditional clothing from each area. Over time, as many as 70 different countries were portrayed.
“These are fantastic experiences that have to mold you, because you see the beauty of humanity daily, from many, many countries of the world,” he reminisced.
Tanguma painting traditional garb from various countries.
Tanguma hoped that by including each of these countries, the artists could spread a message of peace to places beyond Colorado.
“I saw that as an opportunity to take the ideas that I have learned in my own community, a community where they are aspiring for greater civil rights and cultural identity, that permitted me to share those ideas with the passers-by from almost any country in the world.”
A resilient legacy
Attempts to destroy the artwork of the Tanguma family are not new to them. Leo Tanguma has faced critiques of his work since he was a child in Texas.
“When I was in the fifth grade in elementary school, I did some drawings on the blackboard about my classmates killing our town Sheriff,” he recalled. “So, I got severely punished for that. But the reason I did that is because the sheriff in our hometown was the killer. He had killed, up to that point, seven Mexican-Americans — including two of my mom’s cousins.”
Tanguma continued to do artwork portraying both injustice and visions for resolution. He was commissioned for a mural while stationed in Germany, and once again in the 1960s when he was transferred to California. There, he did a mural honoring the Mexican American movement for civil rights.
Tanguma painting a depiction of police brutality in Houston, TX.
Eventually, his artist studio in his hometown of Houston was destroyed in a case of suspected arson. Around this time, his wife, Darlina’s mother, passed away from cancer. The family decided to try to start anew in Denver, where Darlina began her career as an artist while Tanguma continued creating well-known murals in places like the Denver Art Museum.
“Imagine a person that’s blacklisted in Houston. When I got to Denver, the Denver Art Museum asked me to do a mural inside the museum. What beautiful feelings that I had,” he shared. “But I still kept painting issues. I thought that besides the beautiful city and surroundings that I see, still there remained police brutality, education, women’s liberation, war.”
Through it all, Tanguma and his daughter have remained strong in their messages of hope, connected to art, and perhaps most importantly, connected to each other.
“My daughter has been the most important figure that I’ve ever painted with,” Tanguma shared. “Because not only is she talented, but she’s aware, aware of conditions, aware of our culture and our history.”
Tanguma proudly displays the endangered Snow Leopard daughter Darlina painted from memory.
And as far as the conspiracies go, they haven’t stopped the Tangumas either. “It made me more dedicated, I think, because after that I did a number of other murals with social and cultural meaning,” he said.
Darlina continues to collaborate with community in her artwork both independently and through the Redline Contemporary Art Center’s ‘Reach’ program, and Tanguma is planning a mural with students from East High School.
“I think rumors like the airport conspiracies and the mural conspiracies, they really seek to destroy the human connection, the human spirit.” Darlina said. “But I want to create artwork that will bring us together.”