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
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

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.

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.

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."

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.

"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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14 comments
Jeffstone
Jeffstone

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.

Urbanyossarian
Urbanyossarian

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.

HurdyGurdy
HurdyGurdy

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.

Guest2
Guest2

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.

guest
guest

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.

Guest2
Guest2

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.

HurdyGurdy
HurdyGurdy

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.

HurdyGurdy
HurdyGurdy

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.

Jeffstone
Jeffstone

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?

Jeffstone
Jeffstone

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.

Guest2
Guest2

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.

 
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