Minneapolis graffiti artists create art above the law

Sher, Swatch Team, Broken Crow, and more

But even as Broken Crow have become respected artists, Grider and Fitzsimmons continue to confront the legacy of their past. No matter where they work, cops arrive on the scene to check on their spray paint.

"There's an authority figure that walks by everywhere we go," Fitzsimmons says.

Grider, in particular, resents being pigeonholed by people who make assumptions about him because of his spray paint cans.

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

"There's a lot of stigma with the particular medium we've chosen," Grider points out. "People say, 'I know what that looks like!' No, you don't. We do different stuff with it."

JOEY, A.K.A. SHER, DRIVES PAST a police car in Dinkytown and pulls up next to the East Bank railroad tracks. He struts past a "No Trespassing" sign and into a small field of wild brush leading from the road to the tracks, where three long freight trains sit docked. Mosquitoes form the trains' last line of defense.

The hooded vandal paces up and down the length of each train in search of the perfect canvas. Just about every car has been tattooed. He stops at several cars to admire the latest work from local artists he knows.

"That's HBAK's tag," he says, pointing out an iPod Mini blasting Iggy Pop lyrics across the car: "I'm the world's forgotten boy/The one who's searching to destroy."

Train cars are the road show for street writers. They travel across the country and carry graffiti along with their authorized payload. Many artists take down cars' serial numbers and follow their progress online.

"You want to do trains in big, bold letters," Joey says. "Trains are just a moving billboard across the country."

He prowls the abandoned tracks for what seems like hours until he finds a good car, a Union Pacific hopper. As Joey sets about his work, he opens up about life outside graffiti.

The oldest of three, he was raised by a single mother, who died from cervical cancer last winter. She used to worry about his trips into the streets, but encouraged her only son to do something he enjoyed.

He's taking classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College in pursuit of a real art education. Someday, he says, he'd like to be the type of artist you pay to see.

But that's not why he ventures into the night. As a miasma of spray paint emanates from his can, he looks up from his tag with a smile.

"I wish everyone could see the streets like I do."

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