Helena Graffiti

In September 2009, Ben Pepka invited me to Helena, MT to help create a model for community art. On my first day in Helena, Ben took me on a tour around the city to look at potential sites for a mural he was organizing. I thought the most compelling site was a dingy tunnel next to the city library. Despite its frequent use, the tunnel was poorly maintained, its lighting was dim and it had a reputation as a site for vagrancy and juvenile delinquency. There was also graffiti covering the walls, some of which had spread onto a local veterans’ memorial. Due to these tensions and the potential for compromise, we decided to run a pilot project for the model at this tunnel. (Link to Approach to Cruse Tunnel Project).

We started by talking with passersby about issues at the tunnel. Through these conversations, we came upon the idea of turning he tunnel into a revolving public art gallery. The basic concept was to paint a quarter of the wall space white every quarter year for the installation of new visual art. The tunnel would be a site for public art projects, as well as regular graffiti. All art would be temporary, painted over within a year, though the making of art would be permanent. Also, upon a locals suggestion, we aimed to revamp the tunnels lighting system. We settled on these activities with the belief that by changing the tunnel’s atmosphere from seedy and cold to welcoming and art friendly, a corresponding change of behavior in the tunnel would occur.

To present the Cruse Tunnel project the general public, we held an free event at a local shop, four0six. The event consisted on public spray painting, a screening of , and a group dialogue around graffiti and other conflicts between youth and authorities in Helena. We also discussed possibilities for creative events and activities that the youth would like to see happen in town.

After the event we presented our project to the Helena Public Art Commission and with a bit of finagling and hand shaking we were permitted use of the tunnel. We immediately started organizing the first installation which involved a collaboration between kids in Cascade Juvenile Detention Center and a youth home in Helena. Twelve kids at the detention center practiced their graphic skills spray painting canvas and designing T’s and hoodies. Then we asked them to design large stencils that represented themselves through symbols. After the stencils were finished we went out on a late night trip with four kids from the youth home, several recently released from the detention center, shook cans and spray painted the stencils in the tunnel…

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