Concrete canvas: the Northside's guerrilla art park

Along the Mississippi River in North Minneapolis, a former barge shipping terminal sits covered in graffiti and weeds.  Photo by David Pierini

Along the Mississippi River in North Minneapolis, a former barge shipping terminal sits covered in graffiti and weeds. Photo by David Pierini

The idea was to tell a story of the Mississippi River through the Twin Cities. ...The idea was to create something that people wouldn’t want to tear down.
— UHT Graffiti Artist

By Kailen Branson Intern Reporter and Kenzie O'Keefe Editor

If you walk through the Upper Harbor Terminal today, you'll witness an urban art gallery with an almost post-apocalyptic aesthetic to it. Graffiti, from big murals to scrawled tags, is scattered across the 50 year old industrial complex. Nature has also reclaimed the place; weeds now sprout up from cracks in the concrete and walls. 

Almost half a decade ago, a group of artists saw the potential of the abandoned site and came together with an artistic vision. They called it "the space station" and dreamed of creating an artistic landscape so powerful that the city would never tear it down.

North News visited the UHT site with three  of the artists who started the painting community there. They have been given anonymity.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What has the Upper Harbor Terminal meant to you? Artist: it’s been a place where you can practice your art and paint. It’s got all these weird, cool surfaces and it’s kind of like an art park without even meaning to be. It was like a sculpture garden. I always kind of saw it as one curated work of art and it kind of became that on its own.

How did you discover it? Artist: I lived close by. I would see it all the time. One day I noticed that the lights were all off. I didn’t think much about it. Then I heard they had shut down the lock and dam and that there weren’t going to be any barges going up the Mississippi anymore. I knew they weren’t using it anymore and thought: [this] might be a good place to go paint. 

This piece shows the significance of the site to those who painted it and how the community of artists viewed it.  Photo by Kailen Branson

This piece shows the significance of the site to those who painted it and how the community of artists viewed it. Photo by Kailen Branson

What was your experience like painting here? Artist 2: this is a weird, cut off, light industrial enclave. You got the river on one side and the highway on the other and two residential buildings over there and a bunch of salvage businesses.  Artist: We tried to keep all the painting in a zone that wasn’t used. Artist 3: At first we didn’t want painting anywhere it could be seen from the road. If you were driving by, you wouldn’t necessarily know there was graffiti back here.  Artist: I painted here a lot, mostly because I just liked being here. It’s a really beautiful place. It was a sanctuary. It was also a place to experiment with different ideas and trying new bigger stuff …It was like a gallery space, like a studio. We really wanted it to be seen as one cohesive art piece.

What was your vision for that piece? Artist: The vision was placing text in high up spots, so from a certain view it would read as a poem, and to do a mural of the Mississippi. The vision at the time was not very thought out. It was all very sporadic. Getting paint was hard, getting the time, being able to come down here. None of this happened smoothly over a set period of time. It was all piece by piece, whenever it was possible. The idea was to tell a story.

What was the story? Artist: With the first wall, the idea was to tell the story of the Mississippi River through the Twin Cities. There is a sketched outline of Fort Snelling, Pig's Eye. This whole side was going to be a Native American scene on the river. It was like moving up to the sawmills—that whole chapter. Up here are the grain elevators and the flour milling and all that. There’s a barge there. The final one was the future, the unknown. What’s going to be next? It was kind of an ambitious project. We didn’t think this place would be here for this long. 

Did thinking that it would be short lived impact what you were painting or how you related to it? Artist: We thought it would be short lived, but we thought that if we made it into an art landmark that they would save it. We wanted it to be this thing that people would see and be like “That’s really cool. It’s culturally significant. We should hold on to that.” A lot of the content of the art was inspired by being here and seeing the river and seeing all this industrial [stuff]. The idea was to create something that people wouldn’t want to tear down.

What do you think of this place now? Do you still want to see it preserved as an art landmark? Artist: It’s cool to hear that they’re going to do something with it. It would be sweet if they preserved it as an art landmark—you know how they did the Mill City Ruins and it’s a beautiful park, all lit up. I would be sad if it got bulldozed. I’ve looked at the plans of what they’re trying to do and it looks like they’re trying to save parts of it, which would be cool. I think it would be cool if people could go up in the tower and see the city from there. I think it would be cool to get the opportunity to finish some of this stuff and create the murals we were originally trying to create. It’s just a cool place for people to be able to come and take photos and shoot music videos and explore. That was the coolest part about being down here—constantly running into people. This place was just buzzing with people all the time. People from all walks of life would come back here and think it was cool. It would be sweet if they made it into a public space of some kind.

When you look around here, do you know most of the people who did the work that’s here? Artist: For a while it was just us and people we knew. Then it became a destination, so people from out of town would come here. If you were a visiting graffiti artist, you would come here. There’s a lot of out of town people. There's probably at least 30-40 different artists here.  Artist 3: When I first came here, I would see stencils of the Instagram logo and it would be crossed out because you weren’t supposed to post any pictures of this place.

Was that your doing, Artist? Artist: Yeah, we were very protective of the place for a while. We didn't want people to see things until they were "finished." I would paint over shit that was outside the designated zones and clean up trash. We wanted to keep it out of the way and not spilling over into the rest of the [neighborhood].

A lot of people don’t understand the difference between graffiti art and people just messing around with a can of spray paint. How do you explain that? And how did you enforce the distinction down here? Artist 2: The distinction is not clear. Over time it’s impossible. Artist: It was hard. It takes more energy than anybody has to do that. Eventually chaos, and the aesthetics of chaos, take over.  

How do you explain your art to a world that sees graffiti as a chaos aesthetic? Artist: that was very much the big question of this place. What can you make that will make people see it as something besides graffiti? What could you possibly paint that would make it seem like something that should be here as opposed to something that’s just some kids messing around.  With graffiti you have people who do it as art. You have people who do it as a fun hobby and then there are people who just scribble on stuff. The distinction is tough to make, especially when it’s all unsanctioned.

"Sheva" and "Flora" are the artists behind this piece in the center of the UHT, which has been the backdrop for many music videos filmed at the site. Sheva says they painted the mural hoping that "no matter how ignorant to graffiti culture the onlooker was, they would not be able to ignore that behind this spray painted wall was another person pouring their heart out." Sheva says she will "mourn it deeply" when it's gone. "The time that was put into the walls is a beautiful thing that people underestimate," she said.  Photo by David Pierini

"Sheva" and "Flora" are the artists behind this piece in the center of the UHT, which has been the backdrop for many music videos filmed at the site. Sheva says they painted the mural hoping that "no matter how ignorant to graffiti culture the onlooker was, they would not be able to ignore that behind this spray painted wall was another person pouring their heart out." Sheva says she will "mourn it deeply" when it's gone. "The time that was put into the walls is a beautiful thing that people underestimate," she said. Photo by David Pierini

Knowing that development is soon to come to this place, do you feel like what you’ve done down here has been successful or served its purpose? Artist: I think so. I can’t [count] how many videos and photoshoots have been shot down here and how many different people have gotten to experience the magic of this place. Artist 2: All the music videos and creative projects—people came down here because, to some degree, that vision you were trying to create was successful. Artist: The vision was to carve out space for art and creativity in a city that is rapidly trying to commercialize and crack down on any of that. There are no other places [like this]. There are abandoned buildings, but they last for a couple of months and then there’s some new [stuff]. 

Is there anything else you want to say about what this place has meant to you? Artist: It was a really cool community spot, an unofficial recreation center that all sorts of people [would come to], [including] families with kids. One time I saw a bunch of army guys up in the tower taking group pictures. It was a place where all sorts of people have come to enjoy. This is a very unique version of river accessibility. It’s an inspiring place. Artist 2: It was a de facto public space because no one obviously owned it. Artist: There’s more art here than in the sculpture garden at the Walker. It’s beautiful and more beautiful because it wasn’t supposed to be. Watching nature reclaim it has been part of that. Artist 2: The decorations are courtesy of public volunteers.

Kenzie O'Keefe