The Writing on the Wall

Divining the future of a city one mural at a time

The view from my desk is not spectacular, consisting of a window that overlooks the corner of Park Avenue and Ninth Street in Minneapolis. From here, I can see a number of cars--cars parked on the streets, cars filing into the ramp across from Hennepin County Medical Center, cars scurrying between red lights. Above this concrete and asphalt spread, directly in my line of vision, towers a royal purple billboard with a garish illustration of molten cheese and glossily unappealing meats. It's a Taco Bell ad, emblazoned in yellow with the slogan, "INSOMNIA NOW HAS A BRIGHT SIDE."

There is no Taco Bell in the Elliot Park neighborhood. (By my calculations, the nearest MexiMelt-slinging joint you'll encounter is across the river in Northeast, someplace on Stinson). A more pleasant representation of some actual local sights, however, can be found below that billboard on a picture set farther in from the street, covering the wall of the Mono Trade Companies building. The painting depicts one of the distinctive old brownstones that survive in this marooned neighborhood between the freeway, the river, and downtown proper. There's a rendering of the Band Box--the hamburger joint that refuses to go away. Even that gruesome sports balloon they call the Metrodome seems of a piece, even at peace, with its surroundings in this mural. The paint has begun to fade, though, so that the sky is at least three distinct shades of blue, and only vestigial splotches of red remain within the black borders of the lettering that reads "Welcome to Elliot Park."

Ta-coumba Aiken recalls painting that mural in 1985. He also recalls the cars careening frantically down Park--traffic he can now hear through my phone. One such car veered into the parking lot where Aiken was painting on this corner, and subsequently smashed into a parked Cadillac. The owner emerged from the building, spluttering obscenities and creating a heated ruckus that distracted Aiken from his task for a little while. That's the kind of unexpected experience that awaits the artist when he emerges from his studio and prepares to create art on the street.

Michael Dvorak

Along with Marilyn Lindstrom and Seitu Jones, Aiken was one of the young painters who began reconfiguring the visual landscape of the Twin Cities in the early Seventies. At that time, public art was a rare commodity in these parts. A gentleman named Alvin Carter, who later relocated to Louisiana, had been working a bit in public art, but there were still plenty of blank walls to be covered throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul. Nonetheless, it took some convincing to make the case for large, painted public art among uninterested funders. Undeterred, a collection of young artists dubbed themselves the WPA, just like the New Deal program that had put artists to work across the country a half century earlier. Except that this WPA had no government cash behind it, and stood for "Wall Painting Artists."

Still, the artists did not take their idealistic, left-leaning acronym in vain. In the late Sixties, radical notions of public art were being explored in cities like Chicago, where pieces were formed in the crucible of community protest. It was there that a young Marilyn Lindstrom saw murals proudly blaring such slogans as "Break the Grip of the Absentee Landlord," and became convinced, as she puts it, that "art could be an integral part of people's lives."

Public art in Minneapolis has rarely been so fiery and antagonistic. Instead, many mural artists have put their political and social ethos into practice by fostering a community process to design and paint the works. "When the mural movement began in Minnesota, the artists were starting this on their own," writes public-art enthusiast Moira F. Harris, whose 1987 book Museum of the Streets remains an invaluable guide to public art in the Twin Cities. "Since then, artists have been increasingly working with the community to see that it was something people understood and wanted there."

Such collaboration was often necessary to acquire funding and wall space. "I would venture to guess that the NRP process has been the largest single impetus for community involvement in determining changes to the aesthetic environment," says Tom Borrup, director of Intermedia Arts. (Borrup's organization serves as a visible supporter of muralists: Its building is adorned with an ever-changing array of temporary murals.)

While the muralists of the Seventies reflected the integrationist spirit of their day--depicting neighborhoods of different races coming together--many of today's artists reflect their distinct identities in less universal terms. "Right now, the most exciting development in the mural world is the influx of Mexican and Latino artists in the Twin Cities," Borrup says. "Probably half of the murals that have gone up in the past five years in Minneapolis have either gone up in the Latino neighborhoods or were done by some of those artists." And indeed, muralists such as Gustavo Lira and Victor Yepez have transformed the look of south Minneapolis, creating pieces on bakeries and restaurants.

The other major aesthetic transformation has been the rise of graffiti, which began filtering in from New York in the Eighties, arrived in force in the early Nineties, and came to full flower as a local artistic movement some half-dozen years later. The premier organization creating legal graffiti has been Juxtaposition Arts. Founded by artistic directors Roger Cummings and the single-named Peyton, the group began in 1995, offering workshops for Minneapolis youth. Each summer, they lead students in adding a full-size mural to the city's landscape. When most people think of graffiti, they don't picture the elaborate artwork designed by Juxtaposition and their like--or even of the no-less-skilled muralists working outside the law wherever abandoned trains and other isolated flat surfaces can be found--but of the squiggles of spray paint known as tags.

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