Lyn-Lake, Intermedia Arts coming together on graffiti

On an April morning, while on Lyndale Avenue the city’s Clean City Crew pulls up to the C.C. Club, 2600 Lyndale Ave. S., and begins to survey the most recent damage.

Crewmember Darryl Maxwell and partner Curtis Simmons take a Polaroid of the new graffiti before they commence cleaning.

The crew is attempting to beautify Lyndale Avenue, but Maxwell said, "We could do this corner and come back tomorrow and have to do it again."

To Tess Dailey, owner of Sunny Side Up Café, 2704 Lyndale Ave. S., graffiti in Southwest is getting out of hand.

She said she spends more than $1,000 on graffiti removal every year. Dailey said the cost discourages her from making her store "look nice" since, in her experience, it will simply be vandalized again.

The Southwest café is in the heart of what Maxwell calls one of Minneapolis’ most-tagged neighborhoods – squeaking past Dinkytown for the number one spot, he said.

South Minneapolis graffiti is far worse than anything he’s seen on the North side, Maxwell said, adding that the areas around Uptown have a handful of "taggers" who keep him and his coworkers very busy.

In his nearly six years on the Clean City Crew, Maxwell said he is very good at recognizing taggers’ and graffiti writers’ monikers; he and others say that it appears that a small number of taggers account for a large percentage of the city’s graffiti.

Local business owners disagree about why Southwest has such a high incidence of graffiti, but the discussion always comes back to a Lyn-Lake neighbor: Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave. S.

Caught in the middle

The experimental arts center’s relationship with its community has been one of ups and downs. Some in the community say Intermedia’s appreciation of "aerosol art" with its muralled exterior walls help make Lyn-Lake a destination for taggers who mark up the city.

Intermedia Arts representatives said they approach the graffiti issue from another angle, exposing people to legal forms of aerosol art. However, a recent management change has Intermedia leaders taking what they call proactive steps to reduce urban vandalism.

Theresa Sweetland, Intermedia Arts’ education and community programs manager, recently returned from a business trip to New Zealand, where she witnessed new techniques to deter graffiti, other than the traditional arrest-and-charge.

She said there the cities have a strong youth arts programs and rather than charging some graffiti artists, they bring together the vandals and the vandalized and look for ways the traditional adversaries might form a positive relationship.

Sweetland said a conversation with a small business owner might create empathy with the juvenile vandal and create a desire to work together, which might result in the vandal (or artist) creating a legitimate mural to cover up their illegitimate tag.

Differing views

Denise Arambadjis, a member of the Lyn-Lake Business Association, said she hates graffiti. Her Lyn-Lake restaurant, It’s Greek to Me, 626 W. Lake St., has sustained over $10,000 worth of graffiti-removal costs over the last few years.

While in the past Intermedia Arts appeared to be an obvious culprit of almost encouraging it, she said now the arts center is turning around its mission, as well as their reputation in the neighborhood.

"I don’t think we can make a direct link between graffiti and Intermedia Arts anymore," Arambadjis said.

She attributed the change in her attitude to the increased communication between Intermedia Arts and the Lyn-Lake Business Association. "They’re including the neighborhood in what’s going on down there."

However, some still believe the organization is a complacent training ground for vandals.

Don Davis, a private investigator who occasionally works with Olson and the Graffiti Task Force, said that said that he’s observed known taggers using the walls at Intermedia Arts.

He said that by letting "criminals" use their walls, Intermedia Arts is showing the community what side of the graffiti debate they’re on. Intermedia’s Sweetland counters that like many business owners, her organization has little control over what people do once they leave their space.

Police work

Helping wage war against graffiti is Minneapolis Police Sgt. Donna Olson. She’s an inspector on the Graffiti Task Force, a collection of urban and suburban officers who work solely on graffiti issues.

When Olson looks out at graffiti, she sees "fingerprints."

She said that tags are traceable pieces of urban vandalism that, when compiled, form near-definitive evidence against a suspect.

However, according to Olson, police must catch a graffiti writer red-handed – or purple or blue-handed; whatever color they’re using at that moment. Without such proof, Olson said it’s very hard to make the charges stick.

After an arrest has been made, her office works with vandalized property owners and others, to chronicle the extent of the graffiti writer’s damage and resulting cleanup costs for business and governments.

Such a process is currently underway involving a recently arrested suspect who police believe is behind one of Minneapolis’ most prevalent tags, "Clips."

Graffiti experts say in an effort to gain status, taggers generally create a unique and consistent tag such as "Clips." It is this uniqueness that Olson says makes her job easy when it comes to attribute graffiti to a person.

Olson said that if the "Clips" tagger, if found guilty, he could be responsible for tens of thousands of dollars worth of restitution to the affected property owners.

That’s exactly the type of justice neighborhood groups, such as the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, say they’re ready for.

Using a law signed by the governor last October, citizens and business owners can now sue convicted vandals for up to three times the cost of cleanup, along with any attorney fees.

While monetary recovery would depend on the tagger’s wealth, the parents of a convicted minor could be obligated to pay the victims up to $1,000. The law also says that the court can order offenders to restore the property themselves and pay the victim’s legal fees instead.

With some graffiti costing businesses and homeowners tens of thousands of dollars to remove, LNA’s Jack Baker said that he expects the number of people suing under this law to jump pretty soon.

Baker said that he’s in the process of recruiting lawyers who want to work with Lyndale citizens on graffiti cases, and he’s surprised he hasn’t found any yet. "Once somebody specializes in this, they’d have plenty of work," he said.

Getting rid of graffiti

The Minneapolis Police Department recommends that property owners remove graffiti as soon as it is observed. On some surfaces, a special cleaning solution may be needed; for the rest of 2005, Minneapolis will be offering citizens free graffiti-removal solution that can picked up at all city fire stations.

For more information, visit the city’s Graffiti Task Force Web site, www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/graffiti, which offers tips for graffiti removal on a variety of common surfaces.

Call the graffiti hotline at 673-2090.