Graffiti art, and illegal tagging, proliferating in Billings

Love it or hate it, graffiti art is slowly spreading in Billings, covering more and more walls either by commission or permission.

Probably the best known spot is the “art alley” between the 3200 blocks of First and Second avenues north. It was created as part of a collaboration between the Downtown Billings Association, Sherwin-Williams and the Underground Culture Krew.

But there are other “permission walls” as well, and the Underground Culture Krew has been commissioned to cover up cruder graffiti tags with graffiti art on a few garages, and even to paint graffiti on interior walls at Newman Elementary School on South Billings Boulevard.

“There’s a hundred million things going,” said Tyson Middle, owner of Underground Culture Krew, a gallery and art-supply store that sells aerosol paint and other tools of the trade to graffiti artists.

At the same time, there appears to be a lot of traditional “tagging” going on in Billings, mostly by people using markers to leave their nicknames, symbols or gang signs on garages, houses, street signs, light poles, parking garages, fences, utility boxes and dozens of other surfaces.

“We really started seeing an increase maybe a year, a year and a half ago, and lately it’s really spiked again,” said Becky Shay, who recently left her position as the crime analyst for the Billings Police Department to work as its records supervisor.

Her successor, Zachary O’Dell, said the records show that there were 95 reports of graffiti in 2013, which rose to 125 in 2014, then dropped to only 31 last year, with 23 so far this year.

However, he said, those statistics can be misleading because sometimes, depending on what’s painted, an instance of graffiti might be logged in as criminal mischief-business or criminal mischief-residential.

Beyond the tagging and the authorized graffiti art, there is another category of graffiti—more artistic than mere tagging but painted illegally on private or publicly owned property. Egregious examples include two recent pieces of graffiti painted over “ghost advertising” signs.

Those two pieces of intricate graffiti were painted on two sides of the same brick building on the 2100 block of First Avenue North, above AA Transmission, one overlaid on an old 7-Up sign and the other over an even older and barely visible Coca-Cola sign.


Photo by Brian Casteel

Vandals painted graffiti over two “ghost advertising” signs, one for 7-Up and the other for Coca-Cola, on a building on First Avenue North.

That vandalism, which has since been covered with red paint, making it if anything even less attractive, caught the attention of Billings resident Brian Casteel, who exchanged emails with Middle and then, unsatisfied with Middle’s response, with the BPD and Mayor Tom Hanel.

Casteel’s beef, in brief, is that the graffiti on the Coca-Cola sign bore the markings of a prolific local graffiti artist known as “Cryptic,” and that therefore Middle should take some responsibility for policing the activities of artists dabbling in illegal activities.

“It is my understanding that the painted ads have existed for over 70 years, tarnished only by time and the elements until these taggers appeared to leave their mark,” Casteel wrote.”If a business/group like UKC wants to be a part of this community, to grow and thrive, then they should be held to the same standards of obeying the laws and not simply following the unwritten rules of graffiti artists.  Sometimes, going legit has unpleasant consequences.”

Middle sees it quite differently, though he acknowledges he’s walking on “a really weird tightrope.” He said his shop sells supplies to a lot of professional, perfectly respectable artists, and if somebody else he knows or does business with does something illegal, it’s not his responsibility.

“What they do as soon as they walk out of my shop is their business,” he said. “What they do at a ‘legal wall’ or a permission wall? That’s on me.”

He doesn’t condone painting over old advertising signs, any more than he condones tagging churches, schools or houses, Middle said, but “graffiti’s going to be here whether we’re here or not.”

The person responsible for painting over the 7-Up sign was an out-of-towner, Middle believes, who “rolled through town pretty hard,” leaving his mark all over. Work similar to the graffiti on the 7-Up advertising was left near the top of a wall on a Minnesota Avenue building that is next to the oldest surviving building in Billings

Joe Stout, director of operations for the Downtown Billings Association, whose Purple People crews remove graffiti in the central business district, said all the legal projects organized by the Underground Culture Krew give people with a penchant for graffiti a chance to “come in and burn off this energy.”


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Chief Wiggum from “The Simpsons” is part of a graffiti mural on a “permission wall” on the 3200 block of First Avenue North.

There are “the respectable ones” with don’t mark private property or cover other artists’ work, Stout said, “and there are other people who just like to cause trouble.”

Even so, he said, in the seven years he’s been on the job, he seems to be dealing with less graffiti than ever, at least downtown. But because of insurance restrictions, he said, his crews can’t remove or paint over graffiti they can’t reach by standing on the street or sidewalk.

Some of the more noticeable graffiti downtown of late has been at the second-story level or higher. That’s why Stout’s advice to property owners is to have good lighting and to take steps to make it harder to gain access to rooftops.

“They always go to the spot they get to easiest,” he said. And if your building is tagged or painted, he said, “if you don’t want it to happen again, take it down right away.”

If someone reports graffiti on private property and a code enforcement officer responds, the property owner will have 10 days to remove the graffiti or paint over it, under the threat of fines.

Kallie Parsons, the volunteer director at the BPD’s Crime Prevention Center, 2910 Third Ave. N., said it’s not fair to penalize, say, a homeowner twice, first by being tagged and then by being forced to have it removed.

The crime center put together a graffiti removal trailer last year, to help homeowners deal with the problem, she said, but her volunteers are so busy this time of year that she can’t always guarantee that the trailer will be available. Fortunately, both the North Park and South Side neighborhood tasks forces have organized their own bands of volunteers to help paint over graffiti, Parsons said.

A year and a half ago, one of Parsons’ volunteers compiled a thick binder full of photos of graffiti, most of them tags, from all over Billings. There are hundreds of photos arranged under by the name or mark of the graffitist. Their ranks include such tags as Morf, NAS, Adrop, Benning, Grime, M3LT3R.

Parsons said “it’s easy to point fingers at Tyson,” but in her experience taggers are not using the relatively expensive aerosol paints sold by Underground Culture Krew. It is much more common for taggers to steal cheap paints from hardware stores, she said.

Interestingly, Shay, Stout and Parsons all said they are big admirers of the true graffiti artists, as much as they dislike the tagging and the disrespectful graffiti. Stout even follows a handful of graffiti artists on Instagram. It was Stout who pointed out that one of the best-known graffiti artists in the country, Grominator, passed through Billings a couple of years ago and left a spectacular piece of art behind.

Middle knows all about that because he helped Grominator, who was traveling around the country, arrange to paint the entire back wall of what was then Beyond Average Joe’s Gym, formerly a First National Pawn outlet and now vacant, on the 1100 block of Grand Avenue.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

An out-of-town graffiti artist who goes by the name of Grominator, who is known across the country, painted this eye-catching mural on the back wall of a building on Grand Avenue that used to house Beyond Average Joe’s Gym.

The building next door had been heavily used by transients and thickly strewn with garbage, syringes and debris, Middle said, so he and Grominator and other volunteers cleaned out the property in exchange for being allowed to paint the back wall of the gym.

More and more people are coming to appreciate the work of people like Middle and Grominator. In the alley just behind his shop at 12 N. 29th St., Middle got permission from a property owner to use the back of his building for what Middle calls an “out-of-town wall.”

That means graffiti artists who are passing through can try out his products in the alley and then create a piece of art as well. There are a lot of eye-catching pieces there.

Some of the best examples of graffiti art are on the east and north walls of psychotherapist Kee Dunning’s clinic at 3225 First Ave. N. Even before she bought the building a few years ago, she said, she was interested in establishing a relationship with graffiti artists.

Because she and her associates work with children and families, she said, she told Middle the graffiti art “has to be respectful, it has to be kind, it has to be lovely.”

In her mind it has been all that and more. She loves the graffiti and she speaks glowingly of Middle, whom she called “an amazing man.” The art on the wall in her alley has changed several times in the past couple of years, she said, but each time it has remained untouched by other graffitists.

She said it has also been very popular, inducing people from all over the country to stop and take photos. Locally, people have gone there specifically to have their photos taken for engagements, weddings and graduation, she said.

Dunning is such a fan of Middle that she had him paint murals inside her home, and on last week, by coincidence, while Middle was talking with your Last Best News correspondent, Dunning stopped in his shop to buy three pieces of artwork to hang in her home.

On the alley side of Dunning’s building, there has been a series of graffiti murals. The one up now features a doughnut-eating Chief Wiggum from “The Simpsons.” The art on the back wall, which sits at the end of the lawn behind St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, features a variety of graffiti art. There was some opposition from the church at first, Dunning said, but the current minister is completely supportive of what she and Middle and his crew have done.

Some people may be wondering why the art on Dunning’s building remains untouched by other graffitists while the “art alley” between First and Second avenues is so heavily covered with constantly changing graffiti art, and why artists there don’t appear to respect each other’s work.

The answer is that the art alley was designed to be an evolving project, open to everyone at all hours of the day or night, with people encouraged to alter or obliterate what’s already there. Some of the better pieces might stay untouched for week or months before being changed or covered up.

Middle said he patrols the alley on a regular basis to paint over anything too offensive or obscene. When it comes to people who do graffiti, he said, it’s ultimately a free-for-all.

“The bottom line is, they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do,” he said.

Details: You can report illegal graffiti by calling the Crime Prevention Center at 247-8590.

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