U graduate student researches graffiti writers

Brad Ellingson

Not all research involves test tubes, lab coats and Bunsen burners.

For Melisa Riviere, a graduate student in anthropology, the tools of academia are spray paint and concrete.

“I started out in what I call the 21 Jumpstreet syndrome of research because everyone thought I was a cop,” Riviere said.

For eight years, Riviere has studied graffiti by interviewing graffiti writers and by snapping photos.

Riviere said it took three to four years before many writers would talk to her.

“Slowly I started proving that I wasn’t a cop,” Riviere said.

In her research, Riviere has focused on New York, Minneapolis, Puerto Rico and Cuba.

Riviere said she was always interested in graffiti while growing up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but it wasn’t until she moved to Minneapolis that she pursued her interest.

A wall – dubbed the Wall of Fame – formerly located outside of the Cabooze, is what really sparked her interest in graffiti, Riviere said.

The owners of Cabooze let graffiti writers use the wall until the city cracked down on graffiti after Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton took office.

“Graffiti goes in waves in Minneapolis,” Riviere said.

While not in use today, the wall served as a starting point in her research.

“That became a local inspiration for me to find those writers and talk to them,” Riviere said.

A particular piece by a writer using the name “EWOK” motivated her to track down the artist.

Countless writers’ work has appeared on the wall throughout the years.

“You could see it from a lot of places and it was really vibrant in color, and it was giving writers essentially an outdoor gathering,” Riviere said.

Anthropology professor Kathleen Barlow worked with Riviere on her senior project as an undergraduate student. She said Riviere’s work forced her to look at graffiti in new ways.

“She gave me a new perspective of how it could be viewed as art within a community tradition,” Barlow said.

Frank Miller, professor of anthropology, said Riviere is a motivated student with many ideas.

“She is one of the most creative graduate students I’ve ever seen in my 37 years here at the University,” Miller said.

Currently, Riviere said, she is looking at graffiti in Cuba and documenting the lives of women who fought in the Cuban Revolutionary War.

In the future, Riviere would like to publish a book discussing the history of graffiti in Minneapolis from 1975 to the present.

“The art versus vandalism (argument) is very stale as far as I’m concerned,” Riviere said.

Riviere said graffiti is both art and vandalism, but people need to look deeper into it.

“You don’t have to get freaked out. You don’t have to get scared. You don’t have to run from it.

“Stop and read it, and maybe you might actually learn something about it,” Riviere said.

Brad Ellingson covers construction and facilities and welcomes comments at [email protected]