Minneapolis graffiti artists create art above the law

Sher, Swatch Team, Broken Crow, and more

Yarn has become a female counterweight to male-dominated spray paint. New York artist Agata Oleksiak famously wrapped Wall Street's Charging Bull sculpture with yarn. Jessie Hemmons covered the Rocky statue in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum with a pink sweater reading: "Go see the art."

Secret societies have sprung up around the country dedicated to yarn bombing. The Yarncore Collective knits for Seattle, while the Ladies' Fancywork Society strings up Denver. Canadian artists Mandy Moore and Leanne Prain turned their local "stitch and bitch" gossip club into a hardcore yarn crew and wrote a how-to guide on yarn bombing.

Yarn graffiti is hailed by many as a kinder, gentler form of street art because it is easier to clean up than spray paint. But not everyone agrees that it's harmless. On August 9, Minneapolis police cited local yarn artist Eric Rieger, a.k.a. Hot Tea, for graffiti.

Local yarn-bombing crew "Swatch Team" covered the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge on September 1
courtesy of the Walker Art Center
Local yarn-bombing crew "Swatch Team" covered the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge on September 1

Even though the Walker Art Center has invited Elias's crew into its shop for a live demonstration on this humid September afternoon, the museum did not approve a plan to bomb the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge across the street during rush hour. The pedestrian bridge goes over the combined Lyndale and Hennepin Avenues.

"It's not our bridge," explains Rachel Joyce, a spokeswoman for the museum. "It's technically unsanctioned. But I don't want to say it's unsanctioned. She can be here. We're thrilled. We just didn't organize it."

Elias knows the Swatch Team needs to move fast, lest its art project get interrupted by police. Standing before a crowd of women wearing yarn wigs, fiber suspenders, and string belts, Elias stresses that speed is of the essence.

"It has to be up in 20 minutes," she says.

Ready, she leads her team onto the Open Field, where they have prepared an extended clothesline to wrap around the bridge. When Elias gives the order, the crew crosses the street into the sculpture garden and mobs the giant steel structure.

People stop to gawk as the group wraps string and clothes all over the bridge. A woman approaches with her dog and takes a sweater for herself. A man grabs a knit cap and puts it on his baby's head while his wife laughs. Dozens of people hang thousands of feet of yarn, which Elias explains is meant to represent that "we are all connected."

The installation goes up in 15 minutes. Police never show. Elias beams a smile at the rush-hour drivers gawking below.

"Not your typical graffiti, is it?"

JOHN GRIDER REMEMBERS BEING arrested at age 16 for spray painting. Mike Fitzsimmons was never caught, but he knows the adrenaline rush of a midnight chase through the Twin Cities.

Sitting in their attic studio, the duo hardly look like the type who would run from law enforcement. Their small children play with the nanny a floor below as Grider and Fitzsimmons cut stencils of the St. Paul skyline on behalf of Mayor Chris Coleman.

"We're grown up now," Grider says.

Grider and Fitzsimmons have known each other since high school, when they were young taggers prowling the streets with backpacks full of spray paint. The two cut their teeth on graffiti and still say it's a good crash introduction to art.

"You're thinking about composition, placement, all these art-oriented things, and you only have 14 seconds to pull it off," Grider says.

But the midnight getaways didn't wear well with age. By the time the two graduated from high school, they had grown tired of running from the cops and wanted to make money off their hard work. They abandoned graffiti in favor of authorized murals.

The first person who hired Grider to paint a wall was an old woman in his neighborhood who asked him to paint Dr. Seuss characters all over her house. Fitzsimmons's first commission was a beach painting outside a bar in Downers Grove, Illinois.

Eventually, Grider and Fitzsimmons sat down together and decided to work on a bigger project.

"Let's do something we don't have to run away from," Grider remembers thinking at the time.

They christened themselves "Broken Crow" and became famous for their innovative work with stencils all over town and on five continents. Their latest project is up on the Cedar-Riverside stop of the light rail and depicts a cheetah hunting prey.

"We re-introduce animals to habitats they've been removed from. We also like to introduce species into environments they don't exist in," Fitzsimmons says. "We were both brought up on National Geographic. We're huge animal dorks."

On a cool September morning, Broken Crow work on their first project sponsored by a government agency. Designing St. Paul's "Art Happens Here" campaign is a huge step in their careers.

St. Paul Director of Arts and Culture Joe Spencer is spearheading a new effort to encourage more sanctioned street art around town. When it came time to design the marquee piece, he conducted an extensive search for the best street artists in town and finally settled on Broken Crow.

"I love the impact street art has on the city," Spencer says. "This is another way to identify a neighborhood as being a creative community, a vibrant place full of all kinds of creative expressions."

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