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Minneapolis graffiti artists create art above the law

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.

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."

Broken Crow gave up graffiti for murals, including this one on the XYandZ gallery building in south Minneapolis
Emily Utne

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