The Man Behind the Cover

Nick Vleck

You may have seen his work around town: strange alien creatures staring placidly from unexpected places—the loading-dock bay, the wall of an abandoned building, the side of a railroad car. The spray-painted beings emerge like sprites—cartoon-like extraterrestrials with bulbous, double-wide heads and sticklike bodies and limbs, swimming in an elaborate background of curlicues and filigree. They're like colorful modern totems: enigmatic, a little creepy even, but somehow serene.

On a hot late-summer day last week, 27 gives birth to another of them—the one on the cover of this issue of City Pages. This time, though, he's not on the street—he's in his friend's south Minneapolis backyard, where he's been crashing for a few weeks. On a board set against the house, he daubs at a painting of what looks like cat's eyes, surrounded by blazing strokes of color—magenta, yellow, sky blue, black.

27, it turns out, hasn't been doing much street art lately, at least not in Minnesota.

Partly that's because he's starting to show his work in galleries, where he can pick up hundreds of dollars for art he used to do for free. Partly, he confides, it's also because he's on a short leash, due to some unspecified trouble with the law, if you catch his drift.

"I don't want to get caught doing anything," the artist says. "I'm not doing as much illegal activities. I'm getting older and I need to be smart."

27 is coy about how old he is, saying only that he's in his "early 20s," and doesn't want his real name used. Lanky and tall, 27 speaks in a lazy monotone, as if perpetually waking up from a sound sleep.

As a street artist, skulking through the city in the dead of night, he especially loved hitting trains, creating pieces he could then send off on a rolling tour of America, to be enjoyed by an audience of drivers at crossing gates, railroad workers, and fellow vandals. He recorded the serial numbers of many of the cars he hit, using the industry's own tracking system to follow his artwork's progress.

In all that time he's been caught only once, he says—just a few months ago—while practicing his craft in a nearby state.

At least until recently, 27 was spending quite a bit of time spreading his art in other cities. Earlier this summer, he rode the rails on a six-week tour of the West Coast, through Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. Trains are an integral part of his identity as a street artist. "I like hopping trains more than art," he says. "I grew up next to 'em all the time. That was my playground as a kid." In fact, he says, "watching the trains go by inspired me into graffiti."

They started out as simple tags, but in the last few years, whole characters began to emerge, becoming more and more elaborate. He's developed a vague mythology about the creatures he conjures up: "I'm really into space, you know—the universe. So I like to think of them as creatures from far away who were sent here in a huge ship. They're nice people. They don't harm anybody."

27 has a hard time articulating what compels him to create street art. More than anything, he says, it's "the mystery. And that anybody can get fame out of it by continuously putting themselves up on trains or on the street. You can make a name for yourself."

A couple of years ago, 27's art drew the attention of Emma Berg, who runs the popular website Berg devotes a section of her page to street art, including photos of stylish graffiti around town. She began getting emails from a visitor to her site telling her about other graffiti art she should look at.

"It was all his stuff, which of course I didn't know at first," Berg says of the emails from 27.

After corresponding for a while, she had the chance to meet 27, and even went to a show of his art at his friend's house. "That's the first time I ever saw his stuff actually hanging on a wall," Berg says.

She was so impressed she helped secure a solo show at the Soo Visual Arts Center in Minneapolis. "We worked with him really very closely," says Berg, who has become a kind of unofficial artist's rep and advisor to 27. "It's just the idea of taking what he's already doing and putting it in a different format so that it's sellable. And at the same time not losing that energy that is created by having it on the street."

At his first art opening last November, the artist who calls himself 27 mingled with 400 to 500 guests. The assembled throng sipped beverages and gazed at 35 or 40 of his drawings and paintings. The most expensive was priced at about $800.

"I think there's qualities to his work that even seasoned artists really appreciate," says Suzy Greenberg, SooVAC's executive director. "To me the first thing you notice is this great line quality to the work. And the characters in his work have this real sweetness to them."

Over the next six weeks, 27's show nearly sold out. With some of the money he earned, 27 decided to expand his horizons. He took a train (Amtrak this time) to the East Coast, with a plan to make his mark on New York. He brought his bike and several boxes of art supplies and spray paint. "I'd stay with friends and paint every night—do as much as I could to spread it all over the city," 27 says.

From midnight to sunrise, 27 wandered through New York neighborhoods, painting the town. He hit the Lower East Side, parts of Brooklyn, and spent two hours on the Williamsburg Bridge. "That was a high-profile spot," he says. "The thing looked like I spent a day on it. It impressed a lot of other people and got a lot of attention."

By the time he left town, nearly a month later, his work was starting to become a street-art sensation in New York. Fans posted photos and comments on Flickr. The popular Gothamist blog dubbed him the "new king in town." The Village Voice tracked him down back in Minnesota and wrote an article about him.

A short time later, a Brooklyn street artist invited 27 to contribute two pieces to a New York graffiti art show at a Soho gallery, where one of his works was priced at $2,200.

In so doing, 27 became one of the new breed of graffiti artists who have used the public canvas to get a foot in the door of the art world. The most famous of them—the mysterious Banksy in Britain or the Brazilian twins known as Os Gemeos—are virtually mainstream; Banksy has sold work for more than a half-million dollars.

"That's my main focus right now is to do more art inside galleries instead of in the street," 27 says.

The week before Labor Day, 27 was in Seattle for a group show arranged by a local gallery. This time, he didn't hop a train. The gallery flew him out on US Air.

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