Dildos and the flag flap

November’s First Friday Art Walk will commemorate one of Boulder’s strangest bits of history: El Dildo Bandito

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Courtesy Joel Haertling

The November First Friday at Mighty Fudge Studios in the NoBo Arts District is B.Y.O.D.: bring your own dildo. 

In addition to customizing your phallus at a paint station, you’ll get the chance to hear speakers commemorate the 20th anniversary of one of Boulder’s strangest bits of history—El Dildo Bandito. 

The hosts of the event, Patrick Mallek of Mighty Fudge and Joel Haertling of Open Storage, would be the first to tell you that calling the objects at the center of this story “dildos” is incorrect—flippant, even, considering the context in which they were made. The 21 ceramic sculptures of penises were part of an exhibit at the Boulder Public Library called Art Triumphs Over Domestic Violence, organized by the Boulder County Safehouse as part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The art was created by victims of domestic violence or their family members, and featured paintings (some with nudity and graphic themes) in addition to the sculptures. 

The exhibit opened on October 19, 2001, just a month after the September 11 attacks, and for weeks no one seemed to care that nearly two dozen ceramic penises were hanging from a clothesline in a window of the public library—until the “flag flap.” 

In early November, the Daily Camera caught wind that the library’s director at the time, Marcalee Gralapp, had declined an employee’s request in early October to hang a 15-foot-by-10-foot American flag in the main foyer of the library. (Gralapp rescinded approval to hang the flag, according to a memoir of the incident, Long May They Wave, by the employee who requested the flag, Christopher J. Power, but the minutiae of this story does indeed fill a book.)

“[The flag] could compromise our objectivity,” Gralapp told the Camera. “We have people of every faith and culture walking into this building, and we want everybody to feel welcome.”

Letters poured into the Camera accusing Gralapp of being unpatriotic. And it wasn’t long before conservative talk radio picked up on the fact that the library had seen fit to hang penis sculptures but not a flag. It’s hard to say for sure who inserted the phalli into the story, but Powers wrote in his memoir he believes it was the Denver-based Peter Boyles Show. Perhaps this is where Bob Rowan got the notion to steal the dicks. 

Rowan, a Boulder resident, stole them in the morning, during regular library hours, leaving empty the clothesline where the phalluses had hung, save for a sheet of paper: “El Dildo Bandito was here,” it read. “God Bless America.”

The then-49-year-old contractor stole the sculptures because, as he told the Rocky Mountain News, “It’s not art, it’s garbage. I detest the fact they’re hanging there, number one, but the timing; it’s the wrong time to do something like this. And it should never belong in something I pay taxes for.”

Rowan certainly wasn’t alone in his thinking. Cries of “think of the children” came from people like Cindy Crockett, a resident of Centennial who wrote a letter to the Rocky Mountain News on November 15:

“Imagine yourself teaching a newspaper unit with copies of the Rocky Mountain News for each student in a middle school classroom on the day when this kind of news is reported. Or taking a group of students to the BPL for a field trip. Or knowing your high school student is going there to do research.”

The burden of having to talk to children—even those old enough to be having sex—about sex, bodies, or even violence was apparently more than many local parents could bear. 

But back to Rowan. The police showed up at his house around 1:30 a.m. the day after he stole the sculptures, and by all accounts Rowan cooperated in giving the police the sculptures. He said he intended to mail them back to the artist, a then-senior at CU named Suzanne Walker, and never intended to harm the art. In interviews with Power for his memoir, Walker says that many of the sculptures were broken, and one was never returned. 

For Mallek and Haertling, the incident is emblematic of the power of art, and this commemorative event on Friday has nothing to do with politics.  

“I have no political horse in this game whatsoever,” Mallek says over rum and Cokes at T/Aco recently. “I really don’t care . . . But I want to be an art force in the community. Art, to me, is sacred. Everybody’s got to find their line in the sand, what they’re gonna die for, and art, to me, is that line. I will die for art. To me, art means more than anything . . . I’m not going to die for a flag or something like that; that’s great if you want to, but that’s not my thing. So for me, it’s about art needing to have a voice. But also, if [Rowan] doesn’t steal [the sculptures], none of this ever happens, right? The exhibit goes up, it goes down, no one knowing, who cares, right? The irony of that is so great.”

Haertling, who was employed by the library at the time of the incident, will be on hand with artifacts from the incident, and colorful stories from his eyewitness position at the library back in 2001. (He showed up at T/Aco with a manilla folder an inch thick full of newspaper articles about the theft, as well as copies of Power’s book and photographs of the 2001 exhibit.)

Mallek and Haertling have known each other for 20 years as they’ve independently made subversive art around Boulder. Mallek sees this event as a way to lead the North Boulder Art District into a more provocative direction. 

“Joel and I also feel that maybe it’s time for me and him to be in charge of this goddamn art community because no one else is doing it, right?” he asks rhetorically. “So it’s great if you’re gonna hang your paintings of sailboats in the doctor’s office—awesome. But let’s make some goddamn art here. Joel and I are trying to stir some shit up on the north side of town . . . We kind of want to plant our flag and say, guess what? You can have all your rich people move up here, but they’re gonna have to deal with some controversial bullshit in the meantime. We are going to take over North Boulder. You want to make an art district? Let’s make it a goddamn art district. This isn’t an art fair, so let’s actually do some goddamn art.”