As part of the course I taught titled Public Art: Research and Publications offered in the Visual Art track at Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, two students, Jo Nassif and Hades Nyasani, conducted collaborative research into graffiti in the Twin Cities. While their project started as a celebration of graffiti as public art, their focus shifted after encountering pervasive bias in media, law, and online forums. Nassif created an experimental documentary using her own footage intercut with news clips and public documents. Nyasani created a handmade zine, the text of which is reproduced here as a personal essay. These contributions were made independently of each other but exist in dialogue through the artists’ collaborative research and shared concerns over how public art is often defined through policing. Beyond the setting of the classroom in which research was conducted and responses crafted, these projects are pedagogical in the way they disrupt public misinformation and challenge the racial and classist bias of the reporting on and policing of graffiti in the Twin Cities.
In the last few years, we’ve seen a culture shift. Statistics show graffiti in the Twin Cities has been on the decline with nearly half as many reports in 2022 as in 2021. But online, disdain appears in misguided complaints that graffiti is somehow on the rise. A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a post on r/Minneapolis titled “Is It Just Me or Is Graffiti Far More Prevalent in Minneapolis Now?” In the mind-numbing scroll of post after post about how graffiti is poisoning Minneapolis, I sensed a theme as the name of George Floyd popped up more and more. In looking for anything relating to current news in Minneapolis, people always find a way to link back to the outcry following George Floyd’s murder. The beautiful thing about tragedy is that it truly does breed art. It’s undeniable that muralism and protest art hit a renaissance in the Twin Cities following Floyd’s murder, which in itself isn’t shocking. The truly jarring thing is the implication that graffiti started in 2020. There’s a false belief that in the wake of 2020 the police have gotten lazy, thus allowing horrible scribbly tags to take over the Twin Cities. The concept is misguided, but in a city that cleans graffiti based partly on public reports and calls of complaint, I understand looking for an easy explanation outside of oneself.
Graffiti as a pressing issue is easier to understand in the context of the hundreds of thousands of dollars Minneapolis pours into graffiti removal. A quick call to 311 returns the city’s promise to rid reported graffiti eyesores on public property within 20 days. Giving residents of Minneapolis such an easy way to police art stresses the fact that it’s the jurisdiction of the people to decide what art stays and what art is a criminal act requiring erasure. This honor system establishes the mentality of Us vs. Them, Art vs. Crime. It feels near malicious for a city to delegate this task, and in a logical world, you’d think that the average person wouldn’t give it the time of day, but still graffiti remains the eighth most reported complaint in Saint Paul. Isolated from the action of removal, it becomes an impersonal service to keep the Twin Cities clean. But without an “Us” there really is no “Them.”
When you think about graffiti what comes to mind? Who handles it? These “criminals,” who handles them? You paint a picture in your head of distance. But who calls that number? You may erase yourself of personal guilt, but it’s you who decides: Art vs. Crime.
Thinking of the personal politics of something I had never thought of as personally political is something I find myself tangled within. There’s this idea that the people who do graffiti are some type of threat, a looming anonymous criminal force working against the beautification of the Twin Cities. Graffiti is a part of the lives of everyone I love. It’s hard to find a threat within the baby-faced 17-year-olds who run in my circles, in their grins and whispers of, “Bro, go tag that.” I find in most of my writing the biased scribbles of a terminally radical 16-year-old, thinking wistfully about the joy of seeing art made by the voices of artists who don’t have studios or galleries. I tend to see articles lamenting the public terror of graffiti, whiny people who want to live in a city but complain about what breathes life into it. The blurred line where scribbly tags morph into a clean street art defines the space between the culture of graffiti and the gentrification of communities.
I have become hyper-aware in sifting through writings and statistics, in watching our insane-o mayor give speeches, and in reading the well-meaning posts of chronic complainers on Reddit that for every ounce of overwhelming hatred of graffiti, there’s just as many people that can’t wrap their heads around why it’s so big of a deal. Looking back over that very same r/Minneapolis post, I noticed a back and forth between two users. They bicker about whether graffiti is truly as big of an issue as people in the forum make it out to be. One user writes: “People really act like some graffiti is going to turn our city into a ghost town overnight. Nah it’ll be fine. Learn not to care so much about the small things.” In reading this, I realize the bulk of what’s so mind-melting about the conversation around graffiti in places and with messages that cause zero harm is its unneeded classism: to live in a place that’s historically always had graffiti and demand that something be done about it is just so funny because it’s just a part of life, man. At some point you realize it’s not really about the graffiti but instead a desire to separate trash from treasure, rich from poor. Though I understand where people fearful and disdainful of the visibility of graffiti in the Twin Cities are coming from, I also think that discomfort is something you can learn to live with. It is beautiful to mark our cities as our own, and this expression will consistently trump the imposed desire for a “cleaner, better” city.
This project was made possible by the Minnesota Museum of American Art and the Carlson Family Foundation.