Remains of the Spray

A crumbling mill and its prodigious graffiti make for an unauthorized museum of industrial art

Most of the windows are broken. Grids of fractured panes run in rows that delineate each floor of the plain, squarish factory when viewed from the riverbank below. Yet it's easy to overlook such disrepair, because this edifice abuts a more dramatic ruin, gutted by fire nearly a decade ago. Passersby, naturally drawn to the catastrophic, stop to gape at those gutted walls, lapped by flames that could be seen from miles away. The less apocalyptic factory gets little notice. It's the architectural equivalent of a man with a Band-Aid on his knee sitting next to someone in a body cast.

But the interior of this fenced-off building, just off Washington and Park Avenues in downtown Minneapolis, is the urban equivalent of the cave paintings at Lascaux. In the late afternoon sunlight, the walls leap with color: vivid greens, reds, blues, and the occasional maxim written in black aerosol: You cannot sedate all the things you hate, or Know Self. This building has become an art installation eight floors high, curated by generations of graffiti artists who wriggled in illegally through broken windows or climbed up tenuously attached fire-escape ladders. They've left their empty canisters on the floor, their work on the walls. Yet, as one span of intact windowpanes predicts, The End Is Near; the words are, coincidentally enough, spelled out in the same shade of yellow paint as the construction crane that perches over the top of the roof.

Gold Medal graffiti (clockwise from left): A portrait by the prolific Squid; a throw-up adds some volume to the desolate floor; a colorful piece on the roof has a leg up on lesser tags
Gold Medal graffiti (clockwise from left): A portrait by the prolific Squid; a throw-up adds some volume to the desolate floor; a colorful piece on the roof has a leg up on lesser tags

The crane augurs change: urban renewal that will not accommodate spray cans or street slogans. It will transform this building into high-buck condominiums, shiny panes of double-glaze taking the place of shattered safety glass; tasteful wall coverings replacing the work now signed by Squid, Ether, Nimph, and their legion.

Eight decades ago, long before the building became a makeshift gallery, these honeycombed windows would have revealed a hive of faceless laborers who worked side by side to bring Minneapolis to the top of the flour-milling industry. After the factory shut its doors in the 1960s, equally faceless successors crawled in with their aerosol cans, sized up this outmoded temple of American business, and called it their own.

Part of the historic Washburn "A" mill complex, this brick structure is known as the utility building. It rose from the banks in 1914 during the clicking, clacking industrialization of American agriculture. This factory was among the first to employ an invention called the middlings purifier, which blew wheat husks out of the flour. The resulting pure, white wares claimed top honors in an industry competition, an achievement heralded in the giant metal letters--Gold Medal Flour--that still tower over the utility building from the top of the mill next door.

After the milling complex closed down, people who saw the place sensed the allure, felt what mill historian David Wiggins calls "the spirit to the place," a kind of psychogeographical aura he attributes to the "dramatic changes associated with this point on the map." During the subsequent decades, urban daredevils roamed the site playing heady games of hide-and-seek, where "going for the Gold"--standing on top of the G--was the risk-taker's highest honor. Among the lore of the place is the tale of a nameless man who, through his camera lens, fell in love with this cluster of buildings and took hundreds of photos of them before committing suicide.

Standing inside the utility building, you can easily understand his obsession. This building yields an emotional effect that no glossy design journal can conjure. Heavy relics of industrialization--solid iron outcroppings, metal doors, and oversized power switches--are lightened by free-flowing streams of paint. Nearby, tailgating Metrodome fans honk their horns, sending an echo through the dusty space. But the rooms are still restful, like an artist's studio. A breeze curls through the chamber, setting a spray can into a brisk roll. Squint hard and the can becomes a metal roller in full motion, grinding wheat in an ever-finer succession of rollers and sifters--part of a process that required 19 milling steps and 180 separations before the finished product was deposited in bins for packing into bags and barrels. The utility building was where the packaging took place, and on the first floor, a framework of bins still stands, not far from a heavy sliding door covered with black graffiti tags.

Most of the floors are wide open; others have small rooms at one end that were once offices and test kitchens--predecessors of the Betty Crocker kitchens. One open floor was a cafeteria, a sign of enlightened management, who also brought in a player piano--"early Muzak," as Wiggins calls it. This was meant to provide a cheery environment for the floor known as "No Man's Land" because only women worked there, packaging flour.

And just as the flour became more pure as it traveled along closed conveyor belts within this building, the graffiti get better as the floors go by. The fourth floor, lined on one side by rows of rounded bins, marks the first two pieces by one of the most skilled artists, who goes by the tag Squid. The art is a sagging man with a TV for a head; a nearby caption reads Unplug your mind. Watch a little TV. Someone has added a Fu Manchu mustache to the image, a mild critique compared to more typical condemnations--lame or B.S.--that are splashed across work deemed inferior. Most of Squid's pieces go untouched, as does the bold work of Ether FTS, who also has two pieces on this floor.

One flight up, graffiti cover the walls of offices, a backdrop to the rusty light fixtures that hang, wires dangling, from the ceiling. It's tempting to take a Polaroid of this scene, scribble "Your Future" on the back, and send it to the corporate barons of today. Success is fleeting, it would say: Someday, your corner office could look like this.

That's not a bad fate, all told--especially when the painting is done directly on the bones of the former factory. On Floor 5, six silver rectangular chutes rise up from the floor: Tagged on the edges, they look like something from the Walker Sculpture Garden. A rectangle of iron bars on the wall of Floor 6 becomes a frame for an unsettling piece painted entirely in cerulean blue--gear cogs and a bottle, punctuated with the words Manic Depression, Schizophrenia, and Burning Alive. Nowhere to Run From Yourself. A Floor 8 structure that looks like a silver rocket ship carries an eerie man and the question Till the End of the World?

But it's the roof that is the pièce de résistance.It offers a penthouse view of St. Anthony Falls, which powered this industry, stretching off in the distance in one direction. Look the other way and the downtown towers--city hall among them--are close at hand. On the downriver side, four small water towers and the Gold Medal letters loom over the black roof, where taggers have left their mark. The brick side walls are the territory of more accomplished painters, who have thrown up art like the elaborate Hot to Trot, which begins with a kicking leg in a fishnet stocking.

On the façade of the building, three pedestals rise up, culminating just below the roof of the building. There stand a trio of statues done by John K. Daniels (a prolific sculptor probably best known for the Leif Ericson of the state capitol and the bison in front of the Allianz building on Hennepin Avenue near the Walker). Two crouching primitive men--one with a mortar and pestle, the other holding a quern, a hand-powered grindstone--flank the modern miller, who's posing proudly with a roller mill. Ironically, like many of the laborers he represents, he has lost his right arm during his tenure here. The miller's good arm cradles a resting pigeon who will soon be forced to find a new roost.

As the sun sinks in the sky, an eagle appears, flying almost at roof level and then rising with the air currents until it's soaring over the city, over streets and schools named for the flour-milling families: Washburn, Crosby, Pillsbury, Dunwoody, Bell. For years, local painters and sculptors have toiled over grant applications addressed to those same names. But in this abandoned factory, artists who never asked for a penny of that money have thrown down plastic caps and claimed a crumbling piece of largess for themselves.

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