When Streetcar520 owner Ari Howard re-imagined the former McCabe’s Tavern as a globally-inspired culinary destination on South Tejon Street, she had a clear vision of art for its 22-foot interior walls. “I knew I wanted three fierce warrior goddesses,” Howard says.
On a reconnaissance mission with architect Electra Johnson through Denver’s RiNo district, she discovered artist Michael Ortiz—and the kind of monumental, powerful women she wanted to grace her own walls. Using the moniker “illson” for his street art, Ortiz uses stencils, rattlecans (spray paint), brushes and rollers, to create large-scale murals with sweeping, oceanic lines and Kodachrome colors. Graffiti scrawls through the towering elements, and he has recently spent time in Jamaica crafting murals for the Bob Marley Museum and Marley’s original Tuff Gong recording studio.
When Ortiz visited the bare-bones Streetcar520, Howard was covered in grout and construction dust in the midst of her many DIY renovations: tiling, drywalling, resealing the cement floor, and hand-building the giant parabola of 99 light bulbs over the bar. “I often felt outnumbered in my space as a woman doing all this heavy work,” Howard says.
She spent two hours sharing her vision, hoping to convince Ortiz to take on the commission within her budget. He agreed on the spot. “I’ve been doing a lot of really figurative and colorful work in Denver, and when we discussed Ari’s ideas and integrating my work into the concept, it worked out great,” Ortiz says. “When creating these pieces, I wanted to give the sense of emotion that is freedom and liberalism.”
During a recent lunch rush, Howard nods around the light-filled room and the muscular women arching across the walls; she breaks into a wide smile. “Looking around at these warriors …,” she says, “I’m not outnumbered here anymore.”