The writing on the wall

Nina Petersen-Perlman

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Skott Johnson, the owner of Dinkytown business Autographics, surveyed the graffiti on the side of his building.

Johnson said he moved his four-year-old business to its current location on the corner of 13th Avenue and Fourth Street from across the street about two weeks ago, and the spray paint was still there from the previous tenant.

“We’re just waiting for a nice weekend to spray it over,” he said.

At the Intermedia Arts building in Uptown later that weekend, aerosol artists Shock, Rust and Eros spray-painted the finishing touches on a mural depicting Minneapolis and St. Paul.

People’s attitude to graffiti often depends on which side of the can they’re on.

Intermedia Arts’ MSP Freestyle Program

The difference between graffiti and aerosol art is that the latter is legal, said aerosol curator Melisa Rivière.

Rivière, an anthropology doctoral student, is involved with the Intermedia Arts program Freestyle MSP, which seeks to “ferment graffiti and aerosol art lifestyle in the Twin Cities,” she said. “The idea is to legitimize aerosol art.”

The four-week program taught students the local history of graffiti, how to develop their lettering and how to use the tools, Rivière said.

Theresa Sweetland, Intermedia Arts’ education and community programs manager and a first-year graduate student at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs said that while Intermedia Arts does not condone illegal graffiti, it has provided a free, legal graffiti wall for about 10 years.

Part of the program teaches the students about the legal ramifications of spray-painting, Rivière said.

“We teach them the difference between tagging a mailbox and painting legal walls,” she said. “Kids start writing on stuff and don’t realize the consequences of it, the process of cleanup, the legality.”

Rivière said she wanted to have legal advice on hand to give them background.

“We want to give them the knowledge to make appropriate decisions on the street,” she said.

The program was able to hire mentors, feed the artists and pay them, Sweetland said, through grants from the Jerome Foundation, which, according to its Web site, supports new artistic works by emerging artists in New York City and Minnesota.

Molly Hein, 27, who uses the tag Rust, said the program has helped her develop her style and take artistic risks she wouldn’t be able to take in a train yard.

“Because of the criminalization (of graffiti) artists, we are forced to do hurried, messy, unattractive stuff,” she said as she worked on a painting of Minneapolis’ famous “Spoonbridge and Cherry” sculpture.

“Here we have all the time and daylight we need; I can get the shading on the cherry just right,” she said.

Hein said she does only legal art now.

“It’s really great they’re providing this forum and letting people see what’s possible when aerosol artists have the resources we need,” she said.

Program mentor Eros, who asked to not be identified by his real name, said that rather than using graffiti artists as a platform, city officials should try to work with them.

“I’d like to see it as a legitimized art form with legal walls all over the city,” he said. “We’re not trying to destroy stuff; we’re just trying to get our names out there and known.”

Dinkytown graffiti

Steve Johnson, deputy police chief for the University Police Department, said the department reports graffiti as damaged property and a facilities crew cleans it up.

He said that sometimes when the police catch taggers, they will give them a citation, but the taggers will be arrested if it’s major damage.

Many walls and windows of Dinkytown businesses are covered with graffiti, much to the dismay of the targeted owners.

Weni Sium, owner of The Tub coin-operated laundry, said the graffiti on her windows has been there for a couple of years and despite numerous cleanings, won’t go away.

She said recent years have been better in terms of vandalism, because of different businesses coming into the area.

“There used to be a punk nightclub around here and after parties they would vandalize our machines,” she said. “But the police have been working hard and people are watching the whole area.”

Skott Johnson said the graffiti problem goes in streaks.

“There are times when it’s really bad and times when nothing happens, and then you think, ‘Well, what did we do right this time?'” he said.

Johnson, who is president of the Dinkytown Business Association, said many of the businesses are looking into getting digital cameras to film graffiti artists at work so police can catch them.

Donna Olson, head of the Minneapolis Police Department’s Graffiti Task Force, could not be reached for comment.