Minneapolis graffiti artists create art above the law

Sher, Swatch Team, Broken Crow, and more

Joey dangles from the bottom rung of a rusty ladder suspended 16 feet above an abandoned parking lot. His dark clothes blend into the night sky as he pulls himself up to a scaffold. Spray paint cans clank in his backpack.

He prowls around the front of an untouched billboard just off Fifth Avenue and Washington, staking out a good spot to paint. He drops to one knee and claws through his backpack, retrieves a can, and shakes it in the air. After a moment, he shields his mouth with his shirt to keep from huffing aerosol and begins spraying indistinct white outlines.

Four letters emerge from the aluminum can: "SHER," for "sure," a nickname he earned from fellow graffiti writers who admired his willingness to tag anywhere around town. He traces over the white letters in black paint and adds a blue glow to make it pop.

Broken Crow gave up graffiti for murals, including this one on the XYandZ gallery building in south Minneapolis
Emily Utne
Broken Crow gave up graffiti for murals, including this one on the XYandZ gallery building in south Minneapolis
Joey, a.k.a. Sher, painting a Northstar Commuter Rail tunnel
Gregory Pratt
Joey, a.k.a. Sher, painting a Northstar Commuter Rail tunnel

A herd of drunken women emerge from a bar. They spot Joey and catcall up to him, reminding the young vandal that he's committing a crime and needs to finish before he attracts too much attention. A car pulls up moments later, its engine purring. Joey looks down and sighs in relief when he realizes it's a taxi, not a police car.

"I'm afraid of heights," SHER confesses, wiping the sweat from his upper lip. "Pretty soon I'm going to have to come down."

With a deep breath, he pronounces himself satisfied and drops the cans into his backpack. Joey hurries from the scene, climbing down the ladder until he reaches the bottom rung. Eyes closed, he dangles for the second time tonight, then lets go. A crack and thud break the silence as he hits the ground and rolls on the concrete.

Half a block away, Joey finally stops to look up and admire his work.

"People will wake up in the morning and wonder, 'How did he get up there?'"

MINNEAPOLIS RUNS SEVERAL PROGRAMS targeting graffiti. Eighty public and private agencies contribute to the city's efforts. Angela Brenny heads Public Works' Clean City program, a million-dollar initiative aimed at stamping out graffiti, defined as "any marking made without the property owner's permission."

When the city receives a graffiti report, Public Works assigns a crew to document it in photographs, then scrub it. Street signs need to be completely replaced. If graffiti is reported on private property, the city sends a letter to the owners asking them to erase it in seven days. If they don't, Minneapolis provides a cleaning crew and bills the property owner for the expense.

In the past two years, Minneapolis homeowners and businesses have been billed $152,000 for not cleaning up graffiti on the city's schedule. The city spent $131,000 cleaning offensive graffiti five feet from public property in the same timeframe.

Fire stations lend graffiti removal kits to community activists who wish to clean up the streets. Many citizens' groups are waging cleaning campaigns against graffiti. Joanna Solotaroff at Longfellow Community Council helps coordinate responses to "disrespectful" graffiti in her community.

"There's a sense of their neighborhood being violated," Solotaroff says of residents' anger over graffiti. "Their space and property are being violated."

Over a hundred anti-graffiti volunteers venture into the streets of Minneapolis every few weeks to erase tags.

"The biggest way to combat the problem is to take it off," says Erik Espeland, head of Remove Existing Marks of Vandalism. "Persistence by us is a deterrent to them."

Criminal convictions also offer an obvious disincentive. Minneapolis police have recorded about 400 graffiti-related arrests in the past three years, charged as damage to property, a felony when cleanup exceeds $1,000.

"They say, 'It's art, sir. What's the harm? It's art,'" says Sgt. Giovanni Veliz, chief of the city's property crimes unit. "I say, 'You have to understand you don't own the property. How would you feel if someone went to your house and did that?'"

But increasingly, graffiti is art. Minneapolis grants $100,000 each year to spray-paint artists who erect murals in high-graffiti areas to discourage vandalism.

"Graffiti has become a massive, accepted subculture," explains Joseph Belk, head of CO Exhibitions, an arts group based in northeast Minneapolis.

Mainstream corporations like Best Buy, General Mills, and All State Insurance have hired graffiti artists for marketing campaigns. The documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop brought street art to the mainstream and was nominated for an Academy Award last year.

"Graffiti has only established itself in the art world in the last 10 years," says Mike Bishop, the XYandZ gallery owner. "No one knows what to expect in 20."

CHRISTINA ELIAS THROWS HER HANDS into the air and screams.

"This is where I let go," she shouts. "This is the part that can't be planned!"

Elias marches around in a floral skirt and yarn bandana. The guerrilla artist steps across the room and approaches a man in the Walker Art Center's basement. She demands that he hand over his knife.

"We have to cut this string in half," she orders. "It's 1,000 feet long. Cut it to 500 and 500!"

Elias leads the Swatch Team, an activist outfit practicing yarn graffiti, the newest trend in street art. The trend was started in Houston by Magda Sayeg, who was bored one afternoon in 2005 and decided to crochet her clothing shop's doorknob. Then she cocooned a bus. Soon she started a website, "Knitta Please," and became "the Mother of Yarn Bombing." Imitators have sprung up all over the world.

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