If you're one of the 58 million passengers who pass through the Denver International Airport every year, you'll inevitably run into some weird shit that will disrupt the relative peace of your travels. Like, say, a mural of a gas mask-donned, post-apocalyptic stormtrooper brandishing an assault rifle, towering over a legion of weeping nuns and a ruined chapel. Or an insane, demonic sculpture of a mustang with glowing red eyes. Or the two bronze-casted gargoyles hanging out over the baggage claims for literally no reason. Airports are generally extremely sterile places that suck any lingering joy out of life. But the off-kilter art in Denver International (DIA), which was opened in 1995, has earned it a bit of a cult following.
It doesn't hurt that officials at Denver International—the cheeky bastards—lean into its reputation pretty hard. Recently, they introduced a promotional campaign called "The Denfiles," which features posters of aliens and UFOs that commemorate the airport's phantasmagoric reputation. According to Phillip Lucas, a communications specialist at DIA, the airport is currently in the midst of a massive renovation of its main hall, which required them to build "construction walls around areas that are off limits to the public during renovation." So why not imply that something sinister is going on behind the veil? "We saw these big white walls as an opportunity to entertain passengers while poking a little fun at ourselves," he explains.
Of course, conspiracy theorists being conspiracy theorists, the more unhinged corners of the internet immediately digested the #DENfiles posters as the Illuminati taunting the American people right to their faces. The Denver Post quotes a retired dentist/new-world-order whistle-blower named Lee Horowitz who believes there's something sinister about the campaign, a tacit admission that something strange is at foot. “It’s right in your face," he told the paper. "They’ve taken all of the quirkiness of those who are considered foolish conspiracy theorists, and conspiracy theories, and blended it into their mixture of propaganda for damage control." And honestly, the folks at Denver International are cracking up. After all, as Lucas mentions, what other airport in the country sees its PR team field questions about lizard people?
How did we get here?
Well, because of the aforementioned murals and "Bluecifer, the Murderous Mustang of Denver Airport," as Slate and Atlas Obscura dubbed the sculpture there that famously killed its creator, artist Luis Jiménez, there have been whispers about the airport's weirdness for a very long time. But things ramped up mightily in 2010 when Jesse Ventura, former Minnesota governor and pro wrestler, took his TruTV docuseries Conspiracy Theory to the heart of the Denver Airport, so he could finally get to the bottom of what those murals were really about. The episode is full of awesomely misguided Ventura-isms: "There's a lot of strange things about this airport … it just happens to be in a big fat vacant piece of land." Ventura concludes that the murals may depict a roadmap to the end of the world, and when doomsday comes, the global elites will migrate to the airport and subsist in bunkers buried underneath the tarmac. This is obviously extremely outlandish, but according to one-time Denver International spokesperson Heath Montgomery, Ventura's show was ground zero for the culture of conspiracy theories that has gripped the institution. "That is one of the first major TV clips to spread the rumors and myths online, and has really driven a lot of the conversation," he told me. "Social media has increased this cycle exponentially as popular YouTube hosts continue to pick up the story and distribute to new audiences."
Sure enough, if you go to YouTube and type in "Denver airport conspiracy theory" you'll find legions of terrified white men spelunking through the linoleum halls, trying to catch the intelligentsia in the act. The best might be from VaultofTruthOrg, where an interloper stands face to face with DIA's central mural. "Crazy stuff here, just slap it in our face," he spits. "World peace, ladies in gentlemen! By peace he will destroy many." In 2016 the Denver Post did an excellent job breaking down the many cryptological misgivings the crazier corners of the internet have attributed to Denver International; the art is exhibit A, but lest we forget the vaguely Swastika-shaped runways and Freemason-inscribed founding dedications. Montgomery, for his part, says the strangest theory he's ever caught wind of is that "the braille inscription on the airport time capsule from DEN’s opening celebration can somehow trigger the release of a toxin throughout the world or call in the alien mothership."
When I emailed Jay Weidner, one of the prime mythological seditionists on the internet and the guy who escorted Ventura through the airport in that episode of Conspiracy Theory, he maintained that Denver International will someday serve as a "safezone" for the rich and powerful. "Where [the airport] is located is very important as it is part of a government plan called COG, or continuity of government," he says. "Since it is close to being in the center of the country all flights to Denver are equal. The big wigs arrive and go underground to the special trains which take them under the Rockie [sic] Mountains where they will be safe."
Weidner and those of his conspiracy-believing ilk don't believe the official explanations given about all all the art they've come to see as something more than. The mural with the evil general, for instance? That was painted by Colorado artist Leo Tanguma, and it's the first part of a two-part installation. The second piece, which is also in the airport but doesn't get posted on the internet nearly as frequently, depicts the children of the world reveling in peace and harmony while the soldier lays dead and buried below them. In an interview with Zing Magazine, Tanguma noted that irrational minds have interpreted his piece in "the most naive way … like they think I advocate war and all these horrible stories." The rest of the weird installations? You can blame them on the airport's "Art and Culture Program," which consistently rotates exhibits from local Denver artists. The Nazi runways? They simply don't really look like a Swastika.
That all said, Denver International has taken a truly Denverish approach to the conspiracies that hound their most basic public foundation. "It just doesn’t make sense to fight something that is so pervasive at this point,” Montgomery told me. “So, we instead see it as a marketing opportunity. I mean, we’re talking about the Denver airport, right? We have been able to leverage that interest across many demographics to get people talking about our brand and our facility," Aside from there being real value in leveraging this interest, Montgomery said, it really is quite fun. “When we get letters or emails from people who truly believe what they see online, we have to chuckle a bit. I think our leadership, all the way up to the CEO, have really come to embrace our conspiracies and in turn have given us the ability to have some fun with them."
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Luke Winkie on Twitter.