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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Another year, another really boring article about graffiti. Is it art? Is it crime? Is there room in our little brains to accept that it's both? Included, the usual cast of characters: the young vandal rebel who sees society from the other side.... the cranky cop who asks how you'd like it if someone did this YOUR CAR? or YOUR HOUSE? (which of course never really happens, but whatever).... The former-rebel-turned legit, money-making "street artist"..... the quirky "street artist" that uses yarn or whatever the fuck.... followed by the clockwork-like comments by disgruntled, angry men wishing castration upon those who would dare apply paint to a surface......zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

While it can be obnoxious and unsightly at times, graffiti is exciting and vital and has been a living subculture for about 40 years now. Articles like this are rarely exciting or vital. They have been written before in CP, Star Trib, Pioneer Press and, at some point, every newspaper in every major city in the country that has ever seen any graffiti. No light has been shed, no ground broken, nothing of value added to the conversation.

If you really wanted to enlighten people about graffiti, you could start by an article detailing the differences and nuances between gang graffiti and graffiti-graffiti, as the writer of your "Godzilla over bad graffiti" article clearly does not know them.

If you want to learn about graffiti, start by watching the documentary "Style Wars." It came out in 1982 and still utterly relevant and electrifying.


A more novel artistic statement might be placing more street art over the street art...or modifying it in some way to make a new statement...so it all isn't just copycat trend following. Could call it meta-street art. However, I suppose this would irritate those that worked hard on the original work (presuming it isn't just a worthless tag)...just as property owners or citizens, generally, get irritated when the embodiment of their work work gets involuntarily defaced. The point about incessant advertising is well-taken. The constant stream of advertising that pervades our lives probably has a far greater social impact (and does more social harm) than street art that isn't depicting consumer goods...and does appear in many public places.


I recomend watching Exit through the Gift Shop. It discusses the pseudo-celebrity and bullshit associated with street art, just as much as it glorifies the medium. And it's hilarious. Banksy makes an excellent point, however, regarding advertisement. He argues that because companies are allowed to thrust their images and messages (billboards, etc) into our streets and public life, then we should be allowed to "communicate" back to those advertisements. We're given no choice with what we're forced to see on the streets, so why aren't we able to contribute to that discussion? Seriously, though, taggers: unless you have something interesting to say, all you're doing is putting out more worthless advertising.


sigh...I hope this doesn't inspire taggers to think of their work as some sort of art. If so, please put your address up...I want to spray paint my pretend name on your car.


A very thoughtful and balanced article that really speaks to the strange dichotomy of street art as 'art' (which it might be) and the act of tagging as a crime and violation of private property (which it most often is ...). However, art is valued in the eye of the beholder, not necessarily the artist or tagger alone.


I don't want to learn anything about graffiti any more than the so-called "artists" want their real identities learned. And what do you mean about graffiti never happening to someone's car or house. It happened to my car and my garage...so, it does happen...in South Minneapolis...a lot. If you want to understand why people are irritated about graffiti, maybe you should try working through school, piling up debt, finally making a home, then having someone undermine that - of course, I don't have the wisdom of seeing from "the other side of society" like most of these middle/upper-middle class, white, teenagers...what a farce...if I saw politically-oriented/social-commentary graffiti, I'd just about sh*t myself.


Also, I agree that the punishment for common crime should be genital mutilation. Though, what do we do for repeat offenders? A man only has so many nuts to cut.


With what? Gardening shears, a pit bull, high-powered laser?

Come on son!
Come on son!

a very thoughtful and balanced article?! Haha! This is a sarcastic comment I'm hoping. This article is far from thoughtful unless you consider thoughtful the equivalent of a 3rd grade book report a C student could produce. From a graffiti writers perspective this article is pitiful and insulting. From a non graffiti writers perspective this article is quite the same. What new concept or idea came out of that article that wasn't just beating a dead horse? The writers lack of knowledge of the subject or research put into it is blatantly apparent. Very Disappointing and surprising that this made the cover story let alone even made it to print.


Hey friend, you are right- and I should have clarified: Graffiti does happen on garages, fences and sometimes cars (though the car thing is extremely rare, you sure you didn't piss someone off?). That sort of graffiti 95% of the time is gang-related graffiti, which is a whole different thing than the graffiti practiced by the white, upper-middle-class teenagers you so despise, though they both have stylistic history and nuance. But you don't want to learn about that.

Anyhow, contrary to your assumptions, I- like you- am a homeownin', taxpayin', south-minneapolis livin', debt-riddled SOB (though I was wise enough to not finish college, sorry you had to go through that.) So I can relate and empathize with your struggles. I feel you, homie.

What I don't feel, however, is that a pristine, untouched gray garage is somehow a representation of order, justice and the American Dream. No one who tags your property is trying to undermine your hard work or your goals. Graffiti is paint. Only paint. Which can easily be covered up by... you guessed it, other paint.

If someone were to tag my garage- which could happen any day now- I wouldn't be thrilled (unless it looked real cool) but you know what I'd do? I'd go to the hardware store, or my basement, get a can of paint and a brush, take 10 minutes and paint over it. A pain in the ass? Sure. Fair? Not really, but in the grand scheme of things it wouldn't really that big of a fuckin' deal. Ever walked through an alley in South Minneapolis? I'm a lot more offended by the empty plastic food containers, rockstar cans, broken glass and condom wrappers strewn about everywhere than I am seeing some kid's name on a dumpster.

If it were gang graffiti on my garage, I'd be more bummed at the fact that there were gangs in my neighborhood than about using 10 minutes of my time and a quart of paint, and I'd try to figure out things I could do about it, like get to know the kids and families in my neighborhood. If it kept happening, I'd paint some stupid godzilla thing on my garage or have some kids come paint some butterflies on it or some shit. People in south Minneapolis love that kind of thing.

My point is: I think people's priorities are screwy when it comes to graffiti. Is it fair that someone wrote their name on your stuff? No. Was it fair when white people came here, killed all the indians, and stole the land on which your stuff now sits?


Not trying to blame you at all. Trying to be a little light-hearted and also, what you describe sounds like the work not of graffiti artists, but dumb-assed drunk teenage hoodlums. Maybe not, but generally there is somewhat of a code amongst most writers to not tag cars and houses willy-nilly.* A few weeks back there was a windshield-smashing spree near my south minneapolis neighborhood- hundreds of cars. Seems like your ordeal was similar.

As for stop signs, bus stops, sidewalks, public signs, ides of buildings... again, just don't care if they are writing-free or not. Means nothing to me. It's just writing. Letters. Writing is everywhere. You either let writing bother you or you don't. Simple as that.

I can appreciate your concerns about property values, but shouldn't you be more mad at predatory mortgage lenders/ uninformed home-buyers/ Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac about that?

Also, while a lot of graffiti writers come from privileged backgrounds, a lot do not. It's all over the map, socio-economically. That's what makes it even more interesting.

My point about the Genocide was not to say, "Well because this really bad thing happened, then this other less bad thing is ok." I am saying that life is full of unfairnesses. Big and small. Graffiti, if it affects your life at all, is a very small unfairness in a world of very big unfairnesses. Perspective, I guess.

To go back to my original point- you don't have to like graffiti or even grudgingly respect it. But if it is something that bothers you, learning something about it- and there is much to learn- might take some of the edge off next time you see it and it pisses you off. You might gain at least some understanding of what compels someone to go write on stuff. Graffiti is not a black and white thing- no pun intended. You can love it and hate it.

For good insight on the origins of graffiti culture, watch Style Wars:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S...

or track down the books:Subway ArtSpraycan ArtThe Faith of GraffitiThe History of American Graffiti

Brief history of cholo writing/ Lation Gang style:http://www.graffitiverite.com/...

Google this guy: Charles "CHAZ" Bojorquez (has much to say about history of latino gang graffiti style)

*As I stated before, with gangs, tagging is much more a turf-owning mentality and these bets are kinda off.


No, I didn't piss anyone off to get graffiti on my cars..unless my whole block did...Garages, sidewalks, and cars (parked on the street) were all vandalized along several blocks. Don't attempt to find a way to blame me for the vandalism.

Unfortunately, I can't go to the hardware store to pick up automotive paint that looks like my car paint...nor can I paint my garage/house in a graffiti spot to match, exactly, unless I repaint the whole wall (or building) - so, I have blocky paint on the garage in the alleyway. So, the cost is actually much higher than 10 minutes and a gallon of paint. And if this is all you actually cared about (10 minutes), I think you'd be less offended by litter, condoms, etc. - that are remedied in far less time than 10 minutes. Moreover, I don't even know how you remove the stuff from concrete...haven't had to face that one. This doesn't even address the graffiti on public signs, sidewalks, or businesses. And the plain grey garage might not be your vision of beauty, but tagged bus stops, etched glass, blocky paint clean-up, cleaned stop signs that start to look like crap, etc. aren't mine. In excess, these things affect property values as well...which I know is a very old man concern. The intent my not be to undermine my hard work...but that is the effect, intended or not. That the majority of these so-called artists are statistically far more likely to have been born with more privilege than I, yet claim some sort of street, disadvantaged, outside society, etc. point-of-view is a joke...and their "right" to paint my stuff is just another exercise of their entitlement.

What happened to the Native Americans was genocide...and, no, it certainly wasn't fair. And if you can find the Native American kid who is tagging my neighborhood, who's ancestors are from South Minneapolis...I'll give it some thought. However, to diminish the scope of some crime (or type of crime) by highlighting a greater type of crime, and by doing so, attempt to discredit it or make concern about the lesser crime seem unreasonable...well, it is a poor argument. That can be used to justify almost any crime Genocide is about the nastiest crime there is...by comparison, all sorts of other stuff doesn't seem that bad. I could easily walk around, do all sorts of bad things, and claim..."hey, what's the beef, at least I'm not killing off populations." I call bullsh*t on that.