Stepping up their game

Intermedia Arts sponsors graffiti artist mentorships

JoJo said he hadn’t painted illegally in at least 10 years, but the widespread hostility toward graffiti made the Minneapolis aerosol artist and muralist cautious.

Even a decade after he made the move from the streets to the gallery, JoJo didn’t want to see his real name in print.

“There’s such a negative connotation” attached to graffiti, he explained, “and there’s people out there who are just weird.”

“I’ve got a family,” he added, as if he was afraid of retaliation. “I’ve got two kids.”

Graffiti art has an image problem, no doubt, but that’s where The G.A.M.E. comes in. Sponsored by Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave. S., The G.A.M.E. — which stands for Graffiti Art Mentoring and Education — aims to improve both the quality of local graffiti art and encourage legal forms of artistic expression.

JoJo, compact and muscular with graying hair and a long, braided chin beard, is a 21-year veteran of the Twin Cities graffiti scene. Throughout the summer, he’ll work with about 30 local graffiti artists a month, passing on his knowledge of the history and culture of an art form that has endured outlaw status since exploding on the streets of New York City in the 1970s.

The back walls of the Intermedia Arts building had been a so-called “free space,” where any graffiti artists was allowed to paint a mural. Beginning in May, though, the walls were divided up and reserved for participants in The G.A.M.E.

On one warm afternoon, JoJo surveyed a parking lot filled mostly with young men in their teens and 20s, some clambering over scaffolding to reach their designated wall space. He spoke about his goals for The G.A.M.E. over the constant “spsshh, spsshh” of a dozen cans of spray paint and thudding hip-hop blasting from a car stereo.

“I want these guys to be at the highest level [of] quality,” he said. “What I’ve been seeing over the last few years in the city, I’m not actually very proud of, so I want these guys to really … take it further.”

As work progressed on at least six or seven murals at once, JoJo wandered the parking lot, asking questions and offering advice to the younger artists.

“We have a real long tradition of our culture and our techniques being passed down from generation to generation, and I was fortunate enough to learn from guys who were better than me at a younger age,” he explained.

“It’s almost like a street mentorship program,” he added. “But now, we’re taking it out of the street and bringing it mainstream.”

Part of going mainstream is finding willing community partners who will allow participants in The G.A.M.E. to paint murals on their property.

It might seem counterintuitive, but JoJo said a more elaborate graffiti “piece” or “production” — basically a large mural — can discourage “tagging,” or the quick writing of an artist’s initials in spray paint or marker. He said taggers would avoid writing over a well-done piece.

It’s an idea someone who has had her fence or garage door tagged might be slow to warm to, JoJo acknowledged. But he remained confident in the ability of well-executed aerosol art to change perceptions.

“What we’re going to create here is big, beautiful pictures,” he said. “I hope people look at it for the artistic ability, not because their garage got tagged on, or something like that.”

He said the hallmarks of good graffiti are creativity, the use of color and execution — specifically “can control,” or the ability to control and create subtle effects with a spray can. And he offered this challenge to skeptics: “Come with an open mind, and I believe you’ll be impressed.”

Graffiti art produced by participants in The G.A.M.E. will appear throughout the summer on the rear walls at Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave. S. Outdoor murals will change about once a month.