By Jim Adams
“Artists and vandals // As Minneapolis confronts a growing graffiti problem, officials say arts organizations that promote spray-can art are part of the problem.”
A swirling collage of chaos and color inundates the walls outside Intermedia Arts on a busy south Minneapolis thoroughfare, trumpeting the bright abstract designs and stylized signature “tags” of spray-can artists.
The paintings would be illegal graffiti except that the nonprofit arts center permits such pieces on its walls at 2822 Lyndale Av. S.
Some city officials and businesses, which pay thousands of dollars to remove graffiti, contend that Intermedia, Walker Arts Center and other Minneapolis arts organizations are part of a growing graffiti problem.
“Minneapolis has an arts and cultural attraction” for graffiti writers, said Susan Young, who supervises graffiti removal for the city’s Public Works Department.
Young said police and the mayor’s Graffiti Task Force on which Young serves have repeatedly discussed what they see as encouragement of taggers by several city arts centers. She said the centers have promoted graffiti by providing forums to discuss and practice spray-can painting.
– On March 2, Walker Art Center sponsored Californian Frank Shepard Fairey, who spoke about sticker art and graffiti and exhibited his work at Grumpy’s Bar on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. The next day, Fairey was arrested and eventually fined for unlawfully affixing posters and stickers to public property in south Minneapolis. In August 1998, the Walker displayed the graffiti-style work of Barry McGee of San Francisco and helped arrange a class that he led for young artists at another Minneapolis art center, No Name Exhibitions.
– Last July, Juxtaposition Arts, a nonprofit arts center in Minneapolis, and the University of Minnesota Anthropology Department sponsored a museum lecture by Lady Pink, a spray-can artist from New York City. Lady Pink, 35, who now has a mural business, said she showed slides of her subway graffiti and other work to more than 50 students and told them about the risks of creating graffiti. “I don’t tell kids `don’t do it’; I tell them `don’t get caught,’ ” she said in an interview.
– Besides allowing spray-can art on its walls, including a piece by muralist Peyton, Intermedia held a graffiti-style show in December 1997 to show graffiti’s evolution into fine art. Peyton, who goes by only one name and is co-founder of Juxtaposition, was the show’s curator. “This show is about the emergence of legitimacy,” Peyton told a reporter then. “We want to reach a wider audience.” . Mixed message to youh.
City Council Member Lisa McDonald, whose south Minneapolis ward often is hit by graffiti writers, said she is concerned about the mixed message being sent to young artists at art center graffiti forums. “I think it is very hard for kids, in particular, to know where the line of demarcation is: that doing it in a workshop is OK as opposed to doing it on someone else’s property.”
McDonald said that encouraging graffiti undermines neighborhood improvement efforts. “The city is spending a tremendous amount of money to abate graffiti and encourage development,” she said. “Graffiti is a symbol of a neighborhood that is blighted.”
Removing graffiti in Minneapolis cost taxpayers more than $2.5 million last year, Young estimated.
McDonald said that she and eight other council members successfully opposed the nomination early this year of Intermedia’s executive director, Tom Borrup, to the city Arts Commission, which funds and promotes art in Minneapolis.
“I felt they had a problem with graffiti on their own building,” McDonald said. Lyn-Lake Business Association President John Meldahl said his group offered to pay for Intermedia to display something other than spray-can art on its street front. . Intermedia reaches out
Inside Intermedia’s colorful walls, past a multimedia gallery, Borrup sits in his loft office. Executive director for 20 years, Borrup said Intermedia likes to work with its neighbors, but reserves the right to decide “what art we exhibit. . . . We make the curatorial decisions.”
Borrup, 45, said he shares concerns about property damage, including some unwanted tags on Intermedia grounds, and believes such vandals should be prosecuted. He said he sends a clear message to youths who are chosen to paint on center walls: “If they want the opportunity to practice their artistic skills here, it is a big point for us that no tagging is going on.”
Intermedia, whose sponsors include Target, the McKnight Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, spends less than 5 percent of staff time on spray-can art and has 47 art programs, Borrup said.
But part of the center’s mission is reaching young people.
“Young people like the large, colorful hip-hop pieces that have a similar genealogy to illegal street art,” Borrup said. “Our work with spray-can art . . . is a positive way of engaging young people who otherwise might not get positive reinforcement for their artistic skills. They spend time doing constructive work here rather than destructive things elsewhere.” . A return visit?
While the Walker doesn’t condone Fairey’s illegal sticker posting, the museum has “a history of bringing in artists who do work that is not necessarily accepted by everyone,” said Walker education coordinator David Logan.
He said that Fairey designs advertising graphics for Levi’s and Mountain Dew. He also started a personal campaign to paste stickers on public property to protest outdoor advertising. The stickers contain graffiti-like images, and some are as large as posters.
Fairey gave a lecture and slide show of his work as part of the Walker’s “Free Thursdays” program aimed at attracting young people, said Walker education director Sarah Schultz. Asked whether the Walker would invite Fairey back after his arrest for putting stickers on public property, Schultz replied, “I think we would, to talk about his practice.”
Avant garde art like graffiti is on the cutting edge and “can serve a function to shock people, as a way of getting people to think about something in a different way,” Logan said. “Some of the stuff graffiti artists do is actually very beautiful and interesting to look at. I think it is outside the realm of legal or illegal.” . High art?
In a Walker brochure produced for its “Manufacturing (Dis)content” lecture series, including Fairey’s talk, Logan wrote a column about the Internet’s effect on arts distribution and concluded:
“We are at the onset of a fundamental shift in our environment, a shift that will eventually elevate hacking and [music] sampling and graffiti and other such profoundly efficient methods of redirecting power . . . from a simple aesthetic to a high art. It will become unnecessary to ask for permission because no one will be able to give it.”
But, as Fairey discovered, putting your art work on someone else’s property without permission is still illegal graffiti.
Fairey said by telephone from San Diego that he paid a $49 fine for unauthorized posting of his work in Minneapolis. He said he only puts stickers and posters on public property.
Borrup said graffiti, mostly done by young males, has become an international youth phenomenon in the past decade. He said graffiti, along with break dancing, phonograph disc-jockeying and lyrical rap emceeing is part of the hip-hop culture embraced by many young people.
“As an arts organization, we can’t ignore the illegitimate parts or artists who have achieved status who work in styles derived from graffiti forms,” Borrup said. . Lady Pink comes to town
The artist Peyton agreed. He said that’s why Juxtaposition has sponsored talks by several spray-can artists, most recently Lady Pink at the University of Minnesota. He said that after her talk last July, Lady Pink spent several days here working with students painting legitimate murals.
Among those who heard her at the university’s Weisman Art Museum was Lt. Christopher Hildreth of the Minneapolis Police Department. He tracks graffiti in the city’s northeast and university areas.
Lady Pink “advocated attacking transportation systems like trains, subways or buses,” Hildreth said. “She was very persuasive. I was moved by her talk on the art form. She did incredible things with paint.” But, he said, sponsoring such a speaker could inspire more youths to try graffiti.
Lady Pink said in a telephone interview that she doesn’t advocate graffiti, which she no longer practices. She said she has a waiting list of walls owned by people who want her murals.
Lady Pink said she tells students that “you can’t be a legal graffiti artist,” because by definition graffiti is done without permission. If you paint on permitted walls, “You might use a spray can very well and be respected as an artist, but not a graffiti artist. It’s not for pansies,” she said.
Like Fairey, Lady Pink objects to laws against graffiti.
“Why are we just confined to galleries and advertising art? Why can’t we just paint public places at will?” she asked. “We are trying to beautify the world.”
Stephen Gudeman, chairman of the Anthropology Department, said the department helped pay for Lady Pink’s visit. An anthropology graduate student who is studying graffiti helped arrange the visit.
Gudeman said he doesn’t condone illegal graffiti, but trying to control what a speaker says would undermine the freedom of speech essential to a democracy and to academic research. . Free walls If city officials don’t like graffiti, they should provide legal spaces for it, said Borrup, Peyton and Lady Pink.
“If they had more opportunities for legitimate self-expression, they would be less likely to go on a rampage scribbling all over the walls,” Borrup said.
But Minneapolis, St. Paul and other cities that tried the “free wall” approach found that graffiti spread to neighboring areas, according to Twin Cities police and Jim Prigoff, a California author and lecturer on graffiti.
“Officially, most cities have cracked down on open walls,” Prigoff said. “A lot of energy is focused in those areas. It’s true it slips into the surrounding area and has to be cleaned up. But when the free walls disappear, it squirts out all over the place.”
Peyton said it’s no coincidence that the increase in graffiti noted by police in the past year occurred after Minneapolis closed its last free wall. The Bomb Shelter, on the back of a warehouse facing railroad tracks near 34th Avenue S., was the last big stretch of out-of-sight walls where graffiti was tolerated, if not condoned, by police.
“The Bomb Shelter was great,” Peyton said. “I painted there and we loved going there. Some of the best artists painted there.” Peyton, who had a silk screen show at an Edina art gallery recently, said the wall attracted graffiti writers from Detroit, Chicago, New York and elsewhere.
On a recent sunny morning, Sgt. Tom Stocke walked along the eye-catching, two-block-long wall. Stocke, Fifth Precinct graffiti investigator, said he closed the Bomb Shelter to painting in April 1999 after Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton announced a graffiti crackdown.
Offenders sentenced to community service used 85 gallons of white paint to cover the graffiti last fall, he said. Despite police patrols, graffiti again sprawls across most of the wall in the Longfellow neighborhood. The tags will be removed again, Stocke said.
He and graffiti experts agree that some graffiti will continue to appear regardless of what police or city officials do. That was the theme of an e-mail that appeared recently on a graffiti report form on the city’s Web site: “You can arrest us, but we’ll never stop painting, tagging, sticking, drawing our highly artistic drawing, right where all can see.”