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.

Such vandalism rarely impinges upon murals, it should be noted. "It won't last for two weeks," Lindstrom recalls being told when she and her crew of neighborhood youth were painting on Park and Lake. "They will destroy it." This lurking "they," however, did not spray tags or other visual noise onto the new wall painting as officials had suspected. Community art, as opposed to the kind of commercial visuals imposed upon the community, tends not to create the antagonism that makes someone scrawl one's personality upon it.

Murals are far more likely to be victims of extremes in weather or local redevelopment than of vandalism. The vivid colors that once marked "Welcome to Elliot Park," for instance, are visible only in archival photographs now. The "Celebration of Life" mural, designed to mark the entry to the African-American community in north Minneapolis, has a precarious future because of local political developments. A list of prominent murals that have vanished over the years would be too long to include; a list of prominent murals in need of repair or touching up would, sadly, be overlong as well.

"Our desire to have murals far outstrips our capacity to take care of them," says Jack Becker of Forecast, a St. Paul arts nonprofit. Most community groups or businesses believe their work is finished when the painting is concluded. In fact, says Becker, the life of the mural has then only begun. In eight to ten years, he estimates, paint begins fading or plaster begins cracking and murals need to be touched up. Instead, however, many are painted over, and the cycle begins again.

A novice in the world of public art, I recently undertook a monthlong survey of as many murals in Minneapolis and St. Paul as my eyes could take in, with just a few guidebooks and the helpful advice of experts guiding my forays. Below are about 20 of the works that stood out, accompanied by a mélange of my impressions, the artists' commentary, and whatever other material seemed interesting. (Also, City Pages' David Schimke visits a studio the size of a hangar where a team of Mexican and American artists are creating a mosaic that will go up on a wall in Minneapolis's Longfellow neighborhood just a few weeks hence.) By the way, I am by no means claiming that these are the "best" murals in the Twin Cities, and just because I omitted a piece doesn't mean it isn't noteworthy. So let's just stop that flurry of letters to the editor starting "How could you overlook the puzzle-like, negative-image lettering on the side of the U of M studio arts building?" and "What kind of idiot would fail to mention Roger Nelson's work on the Kmart building on Lake Street?" This piece is meant as an introduction, not a conclusion.

In any case, these existing murals are now part of the psychological landscape of the Cities. True, they may be a part of our subconscious landscape: When I mentioned I was working on this article, some half-dozen friends and acquaintances chimed in to suggest a mural I just had to include--if only they could remember the exact location. But that's how public art operates, subtly shifting your mood without commanding your full attention.

One way or another, public space will be arranged according to some sort of aesthetic. If we're fortunate, the community that will be shaped by that aesthetic will have some say in the process. It can be one of restyled graffiti. Or, if you prefer, it can be one of steel and glass and unadorned concrete--or Taco Bell ads.

 

 

John Biggers, designer;
painted by Ta-coumba Aiken,
Seitu Jones, and others

CELEBRATION OF LIFE

Olson Memorial Highway and Lyndale Avenue North

Minneapolis * 1996

 

The sound wall might be the most depressing of all modern architectural feats, rising above the ruins of former communities as a monument to sheer, unadorned utility. Cars must be moved along highways. People must be shielded from the roaring noise of those highways. Walls must rise.

The first such structure that the Minnesota Department of Transportation allowed to be painted was heralded by its creators as "a gateway to the African-American community," which accounts for the African motifs in the piece. On the far left, fireballs shoot from an amorphous void into a checkered grid. As you follow the pale blue panels rightward, recognizable shapes slowly emerge from these patterns. Paint drippings cohere into ornate combs, descending from above to gently touch spirit stools occupied by totemic animals. At the midpoint of the wall, the shapes rise off the wall to create a vivid three-dimensional effect. Then they sink back into the surface on the far right, fading first into rudimentary sketches, then into nothingness again.

This vision of life's mutability, of existence emerging from the universe and then returning, might soon be reflected in the fate of the mural itself. As part of the controversial redevelopment of the near north side, nearby Bassett Creek will soon be "reclaimed"--that is, brought above ground--and the land on which Celebration of Life now rests will become structurally unsound. (See "Home Is Where the Art Is," February 28). Two proposals have been floated in response, to be debated in public discussion on September 22. One would relocate the mural, risking structural damage. An alternative plan would pony up money to reconstruct it elsewhere, even though its original creator, John Biggers, died earlier this year. The mural's dilemma seems uncomfortably fitting, since much of the African-American community celebrated in "Celebration of Life" has already been displaced.

Leisa Luis, Stephen Lick,
and community

GARFIELD AQUARIUM, FRESH FISH

3325 Garfield Ave. S.

NSP Substation

Minneapolis * 1996

You could argue that an NSP substation is no less monumental an aesthetic blot on the community than a sound wall. Once again, the structure suffers the curse of utility. A city couldn't exist without such places, but the barren presence of such buildings takes its psychological toll. Exhibit A: this squat brick bunker plopped on the corner of Garfield Avenue and 33rd Street, resting solidly in that spot like a mausoleum, though without a crypt's gothic grandeur. The very presence of this building threatens to suck the vitality of the neighborhood into its brownish vacuum.

How dynamic the change, however, once the box was rechristened Garfield Aquarium. Although the structure of the building remains fundamentally unchanged, its mood has been transformed by the addition of several fanciful panels. Where once there were brown, windowless rectangles, now exotic fish appear to swim, as if the entire building were filled with aquatic life. Swimming in squiggles of aquamarine blues and greens, the fish peer out through bulbous eyes at the non-aquarium world beyond--a realm that now must compete to be as colorful and intriguing as this imagined fishworld.

 

 

José Curbelo, Constanza Carballo, Wolf Bellecourt, and others

PEACEMAKER CENTER

2300 Cedar Ave. S.

Minneapolis * 1998

And yet more brick boxes. I never knew that there were so many scattered throughout Minneapolis until I embarked upon this survey. This particular box huddles in the corner of a small park within the shadows of the confused loop of overpasses that tangle Highway 55 into the fabric of south Minneapolis. Surrounding the box are two baseball diamonds and two basketball courts, along with a standardized notice--protected by a caged metal window--welcoming you to a "federally recognized Weed & Seed community."

The two walls of the building that José Curbelo and his crew, Creative Energy Murals, have decorated promise to improve the tenor of the neighborhood--without any federal recognition. Native American in theme, the mural is bathed in browns and blues, with totemic stone animals somberly dominating the foreground. A border of paint-splashed rocks surrounds the two-sided piece, creating a kind of protected artistic space, safe from the encroaching traffic, which treats the neighborhood as nothing more than a way to get from downtown to the airport.

 

 

Roger Cummings, Peyton, and others

UNTITLED

1890 Glenwood Ave. N.

Minneapolis * 2000

 

 

Ta-coumba Aiken and Harrison Neighborhood Association

LIFE FORCE

1889 Glenwood Ave. N.

Minneapolis * 1987

 

 

When you've been scouting murals a bit, you begin to see the urban landscape differently. It doesn't take long. Your eyes become more active, seeking a place, not to rest, but to be stimulated. When there is less to observe, those eyes grow anxious. Driving north out of downtown Minneapolis on Glenwood Avenue, for instance, you start to think like a graffiti artist. Blank stone walls no longer assume a neutral character. They annoy, agitate, oppress you with their lack of imagination, with their stolid insistence on being drab.

The first full-bodied splash of life you encounter along this path is little more than an advertisement, a tumble of brightly colored popcorn spilling into an array of lollipops and ice-cream scoops. This is the Popcorn Palace, a north Minneapolis sweets shop, and a small but welcome reward for enduring the industrial blandness of the past few miles.

Next up are two very different pieces of mural art, on opposite corners of Morgan and Glenwood.

One is a rococo tangle of graffiti, a dense thicket of bubbled and jagged lettering from which faces and hands emerge. The other is a more conventionally boosterish neighborhood panorama: a mix of colorfully rendered local landmarks and neighbors, including one woman perched atop a mailbox. The difference between the old and new styles is jarring, but soon your eyes settle. All murals are slightly jarring in their unexpectedness; they set themselves apart from the uniformity of their surroundings. Soon you see what these two pieces have in common--a formal restlessness, an exuberance, a desire not to be expected no matter how many times you've seen them before.

 

 

Ta-coumba Aiken

CHILD'S PLAY

Life Skills Development Center

905 Selby Ave.

St. Paul * 2000

 

When you talk about murals, sooner or later you wind up talking about children. There are many reasons for this. Some are coincidental: Artists paint in summer, artists want volunteers, and kids have a lot of free time between June and August. Some are idealistic: Many artists envision their work as part of a community-outreach project, and young people are the most open to their ideals. And some are practical: There's no better way to scrounge up funds for a community project than to say it helps the kids.

But even when youth aren't involved in the creation of murals, a great deal of public art has a childlike quality to it. When a mural's style leans toward the realistic, it gilds the everyday with a wide palette of color. When its style tends toward the abstract, the mural typically chooses the expansive chaos of curves and curls over the mathematical foreboding of edges and angles. Such is the case with Ta-coumba Aiken's fantasia of swerves and swirls, from which distinct heads and hands boisterously emerge. And, fittingly enough, this mural is found in a playground.

 

 

Marilyn Lindstrom and others

UNITY IS THE ULTIMATE POWER

Neighborhood Safe Art Park

12th Avenue South and East Lake Street

Minneapolis * 1992

 

"We worked on this mural during a violent time in the neighborhood," says Marilyn Lindstrom. Murder and other violent crime were on the rise in the summer of 1991, and police were out in force day and night. Kids on their way to the mural workshop were routinely patted down and questioned. "They'd be terrified by the time they got here," Lindstrom remembers. "We all had to work through this fear of harassment."

The artists were helped along by several serendipitous moments of inspiration. As they worked on the mural that summer, Lindstrom and her youth helpers planted seven trees, including a smallish fruit tree no one held out much hope for. Yet, in defiance of expectations, the tree began to blossom in August. There was snow on the ground for the mural's dedication, and the tree was still in bloom.

Starting with the act of reclaiming the side of a building from anonymity, murals are filled with unlikely occurrences. While Lindstrom and young volunteer Adrian Garza were joking around, the boy stopped and noted seriously, "You know, I never thought I'd have an old white lady for a friend."

 

Jimmy Longoria

LA LLORNA

Connections to Work

810 E. Franklin Ave.

Minneapolis * 1998

 

Not all murals are single-mindedly determined to uplift the community. Cultural legacies can be consciously creepy as well. Here is a woman sculpted out of scattered waves of gray paint, her shape spinning violently out of the formlessness of the squiggly, indistinct natural world that surrounds her. As you look more closely, you see her children cowering beneath her arms--in fear of those elements, perhaps, or of their mother, who seems elemental herself.

That woman is La Llorna, and the painting is based on a longstanding legend that Mexican mothers still use to frighten their children into obedience. There are many popular versions of this tale, but the most popular relates that La Llorna was a Mexican beauty who longed for a handsome husband. She got her wish, but he abandoned her and her children. In a Medea-like moment of passionate despair, she drowned her infants.

Now, the legend goes, the wind you hear wail late at night is the voice of La Llorna, crying out for new children to replace her own. "You had better be good," mothers warn their bratty brood, "or La Llorna will snatch you away." And you thought the Chicago-Franklin area could be a scary enough place on its own.

Rigel Sauri

UNTITLED

Me Gusta Carnicería

405 E. Lake St.

Minneapolis * 199x

 

In contrast to the busy, urban bent found in graffiti murals, many of the Latino murals in south Minneapolis have a consciously nostalgic flavor. It's hard not to consider these panels as a window into the conflicted emotions of the immigrants who live, work, and shop along these thoroughfares.

One of the most pleasant examples of Mexican-style murals in Minneapolis stretches along the second floor of the Me Gusta meat store. It depicts an idealized Mexican village: men in sombreros, women shopping choosily for meats, neighbors chatting or just exchanging greetings. In other words, somewhere and sometime else--an imagined moment that found public, commercial, and family life in closer harmony.

The corner of Fourth and Lake hasn't achieved that sort of utopia. In fact, you could say that this block is the site of an aesthetic battle between those storeowners and neighbors intent on creating a colorful village atmosphere and the bleak, utilitarian brick walls that stretch along the north side of Lake Street. The battle is a quiet one, of course--hardly even evident to the average driver waiting at a stoplight. But the murals stand in judgment of the blank walls: "Why aren't you doing your part to make this block a neighborhood?"

 

 

John Acosta, Richard Schletty, Armando Gutierrez

HUNGER HAS NO COLOR

344 S. Robert St.

St. Paul * 1985

 

Tucked away in its own corner of the metropolis, West St. Paul is, in many ways, a world unto itself. It's a neighborhood you aren't likely to stumble across--a place where a green left-turn arrow doesn't necessarily mean you have the right of way. (When turning left from Concord to State at the five-way intersection at the heart of this district, you've got to yield to traffic from George Street--regardless of what it says in your drivers-ed manual.) And it's a spot whose Latino heritage has been nurtured and revitalized, causing the core to be renamed District del Sol.

Under the purview of the Riverview Economic Development Association, residents and businesses are deliberately cultivating the aesthetic of the neighborhood. Several murals from the Seventies have been repainted. Several others, now badly faded, are being painted over. In the future, REDA intends to place works on those walls that promise maximum longevity for public art.

One of the most striking of the images that remains is a black, white, and gray mural that adorns a food bank just south of the river. Where most murals attempt to dazzle with bright splashes of primaries and pastels, Hunger Has No Color takes its title literally. "All of us had training in classical realism," explains painter John Acosta. "We wanted to stay in the tradition of the old masters--pictures of our wives and children and some people who actually work for the food bank." Stark but not grim, the piece has a gritty, photographic feel that is uncommon to the more florid murals of West St. Paul.

 

 

Sandra Zylla-Rolf

U OTTER STOP INN

617 Central Ave. NE

Minneapolis * 2001

 

Not all murals are community-created works of art. Encountering the mural that advertises the U Otter Stop Inn--a large-scale depiction of (what else?) otters at their favorite, er, watering hole--some passersby might argue that commercial murals like this one aren't works of art at all.

In any case, commercial enterprises have provided the Twin Cities with some of their best maintained and most enduring murals. The owners have a financial interest in seeing to it that the art is carefully kept up, after all. The transcription of Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit" emblazoned in gigantic notation along the side of the Schmitt Music building and the abstract designs of Peter Busa that have decorated the Valspar Corporation building since 1982 are permanent landmarks in downtown Minneapolis.

But back to the otters. Me, I think the anthropomorphic critters who take their leisure on the side of this area bar are, well, cute. And I don't mean "cute" in an ironic, kitschy way. Well, okay, the kitsch factor is impossible to avoid when you're discussing a few dozen undersea mammals drinking, carousing, singing karaoke, and dancing cheek to cheek. But, when done well, kitsch can be quirky and endearing rather than tasteless and garish. Besides, if you really dig otters, why shouldn't you share that love with the people?

 

 

Juxtaposition Arts

KEMPS/MARIGOLD BUILDING

340 W. Broadway

Minneapolis * 2001

 

For years, the visual style of community murals positioned these paintings as a more organic alternative to commercial art. As a truly contemporary (or, if you insist, postmodern) form, however, graffiti style acknowledges, incorporates, and parodies the processes of the advertising industry--its logos and bright illustrations constantly overwhelming our visual consciousness. The graffiti designs stand out like a billboard, an advertisement for the artist. But when graffiti artists cooperate with businesses, the ideological and stylistic differences between these groups often emerge more fully.

The latest summer-volunteer youth project wasn't an easy endeavor for Juxtaposition Arts to conceptualize. The building's owners had contacted Juxta after admiring their work down the street at the intersection of Broadway and I-94W. But how do you reconcile the wild visual imagination of your team of graffiti kids with your host corporation's insistence that the resultant artwork be tasteful and include a good number of cows?

"'What's up with the cows?'" artistic director Peyton recalls hearing in planning discussions. "'I'm not really feeling it,' the kids would say." And the broad, bare side of that barn in the picture? That just had to be bombed, right?

Well, no, said the owners. Nothing too graffiti-styled, thanks. And so Juxta devised a semi-absurdist compromise. The cows are being lifted into space by curious (or maybe just thirsty) aliens. The larger areas of the mural have been covered with rolled-on acrylic paint, its details and nuances added by spray can. The painting's bright, textured surface is best appreciated from the street--as you get closer, the image is harder to make out. But passing cars can take it in. This summer, as the crew finished work on the mural, many drivers beeped their approval at the painters--though, as Juxta associate Josh Lemke notes, "When you're concentrating, those horns really scare you."

 

Marilyn Lindstrom, Doc Davis, Robert DesJarlait, and others

WE CLAIM OUR LIVES

Tenth Avenue South and East Franklin Avenue

Minneapolis * 1994

 

Lindstrom likes to talk about how murals painted by her organization, Neighborhood Safe Art, reflect the "reality" of whatever community they create within. On this particular occasion, she and her youth volunteer crew were reminded that this reality includes bad decisions, broken laws, and dumb violence. During the course of the mural's creation, one young painter was shot by a dealer when he became involved in a botched drug trade. After a frightening stint in a coma, and continued paralysis on one side, the boy recovered in time to help finish the mural.

And yet these pieces not only reflect this reality; they help shape it as well. We Claim Our Lives is directly across from the old Franklin Theatre, future home of the Franklin Cultural Center. Immediately prior to the arrival of Lindstrom and Co., the theater was being used to hawk pornography. She and her crew assiduously cleaned the theater of its accumulated detritus. Once they began using the space as their workshop, other community activists began having thoughts of reclaiming the building for productive purposes.

This particular mural, divided into four frames, has begun to show its age. The third panel, featuring a peace symbol, has seen a noticeable amount of its plaster peel in the past few years and is in need of repair. In the symbolism of the piece, that panel represents the future.

 

 

Katherine Nobbe

PILLSBURY HOUSE MURAL

Pillsbury House

3500 Chicago Ave. S.

Minneapolis * 1994

 

The deterioration of murals is a serious issue. Many longtime mural artists, including Marilyn Lindstrom and Ta-coumba Aiken, have begun to work more often with mosaic (see "Fifteen Hundred Tiles to the Mexican Border," p. 14), which holds up better against the elements. This pioneering work, which used a 3M Scotch print process to project computer graphics on a vinyl material, demonstrates another way of revolutionizing mural work in order to prolong its life. The designs of such murals can be stored electronically and permanently. "[The mural] is showing signs of wear, but it could easily be reprinted, and it would be exactly the same," says Jack Becker of the public-art group Forecast.

For this piece, Nobbe researched the Powderhorn Park area and, with the aid of youth volunteers, composed a collage of visual and written elements. Then, using programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, she created a work that is physically akin to a giant color Xerox. But the mural doesn't seem cold or machine-tooled. From the street, in fact, the first thing an observer notices is the mural's painterly surface--images of a black man nuzzling his infant, or of an older white couple posing arm in arm.

In addition to its practical advantages, the use of computer technology is also one of the more potentially democratic techniques in the creation of murals. Other artists can bring their skills to a mural's creation--the work of photographers, for instance, can be integrated into the piece. And, because the technology is relatively easy to learn, people who don't consider themselves artists can play a greater role in designing and executing a wall painting.

 

 

Juxtaposition Arts

MERIT GRAFFITI MURAL

Merit Printing

117 N. Second St.

Minneapolis * 2000

As with the other elements of hip hop--the DJ's dexterous flick on a turntable or the MC's quick-lipped sputter of rhymes and invective--the graffiti medium is not an inclusive art form. The use of spray cans is tricky, and you must work long hours to learn to paint a hard-edged straight line with an aerosol can.

"You have no contact with your surface," says Peyton. "But somehow you use this factory-made product, one that's not designed to produce art, to create." This elongated use of a building as canvas may be the premier example of legal graffiti in the Twin Cities. The colors are bright and attention-grabbing at first glance, but the design itself is quite intricate. Similarly, the figures are cartoonish, yet a closer look reveals how complex and carefully rendered they are. The mural is the work of 12 adult artists, including New York guest artists Crash and Daze, who familiarized the Juxtaposition students with new techniques. Look carefully and you will see Crash's elaborate signature being grabbed by the giant claw of a towering, box-shaped robot.

New York, of course, is where this style of graffiti originated. Peyton recalls seeing Style Wars--the seminal, quasi-documentary examination of the rise of hip-hop culture--as a boy on PBS. As for many Midwesterners Peyton's age--he's 32 years old--this was his first exposure to a new world of art. And the film, which followed a young graf stylist as he progressed from bombing subway trains to crafting elaborate public works for his neighborhood, left no doubt as to the trajectory graffiti artists imagined for themselves. They wouldn't be dodging the law forever.

 

 

Ta-coumba Aiken

VOICE OF HOPE

Union Gospel Children's Mission

109 E. Ninth St.

St. Paul * 2000

Because they are often thought through and planned with a good deal of community involvement, and because they are typically crafted by several artists and even children, community murals are often created with an aesthetic of consensus in mind.

This mural, says Jack Becker, is unusual in that it represents "an individual artist's artistic statement." Continues Becker, "This piece is more free-form and gestural, which you don't see in a lot of murals downtown." Aiken, who works with several idiosyncratic styles of abstract imagery, refers to the composition of this particular set of motifs as "rhythm patterns." The piece is across the street from the Naomi Family Center. "Since women go there with kids to better their lives," Aiken says, "I thought a lot about what's going to give you that little spark, to help make your life better." The result was a continuous rainbow of colors, composed of lines at least six feet long.

Personal aesthetic aside, to the extent that creating murals throws artists out onto the streets, a certain engagement with the people of the neighborhood is inevitable. While finishing this mural last fall, one incident reminded Aiken, who has been painting murals since the early Seventies, of both the passage of time and the continuity that comes from remaining in the same community. "The guy that runs the parking lot remembered me from when I was painting the Schubert mural in downtown Minneapolis," says Aiken. "He was an attendant when I was painting there. Now he's president of the parking company."

 

 

Various Artists

INTERMEDIA ARTS

2822 Lyndale Ave. S.

Minneapolis * 2001

 

I do believe they have some good programs. The problem is you can't tell, because the outside of their building is all graffiti. Graffiti says that you're an area in decline.

--city council member Lisa McDonald on
Intermedia Arts

When it comes to aesthetic environments people are comfortable living and working in, there are differences. Some people like glass and concrete tunnels they can drive their car through and not see any other human beings on their way to work. Some people want a lively, hip, even messy look. When you look at a lot of urban environments that are really alive, they can be messy. All that stimulation is what some people like.

--Tom Borrup, Intermedia Arts, on the differences in cultural preference in Minneapolis

 

When I'm walking out of Menards with 300 cans of spray paint, I still get looks and comments. I've gotten used to it.

--Peyton, of Juxtaposition Arts, on the reluctance of some to accept legal graffiti-style public art

Carole Byard and
Marilyn Lindstrom

CROSSROADS

3013 Lyndale Ave. S.

Minneapolis *1997

 

Just a few blocks away from Intermedia Arts is a less controversial but just as striking piece of work, a broad swath of purplish blues and yellowing oranges. In keeping with the multicultural theme of the piece, there are symbols representing the five main cultures in the area--African, Native American, Meso-American, Asian, and European. But the dominant image is the Yoruba figure Elegba, a spiritual force of nature who purportedly comes to the aid of an individual when there is a choice to be made in life.

Perhaps the "crossroads" theme is an overused one, summoning memories of bad valedictorian speeches from high school graduation, and coming-of-age movies starring Ralph Macchio. But this sense of being at a point where things will almost certainly change, for good or bad, does seem to describe the art and architecture of the Twin Cities. As the city is buffeted by a gust of development and by a flurry of new mural creation, the face of the landscape is fated to change.

Murals are monuments to impermanence. Unlike a statue or a building or any other solid landmark, they are at the mercy of the elements. Five years from now, maybe a quarter of the works discussed here will be gone. Maybe half. And this is not exclusively a bad thing. Like markers at a forked road, murals indicate that a neighborhood will be heading in a new direction. It's up to us to figure out what that destination will be.

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