American graffiti: Peyton Scott Russell on graffiti as fine art and legacy of Floyd mural
On the last days of the artist’s 40-year retrospective show at the White Bear Lake Center for the Arts, Russell reflects on the dualities of his career
Even within the cavernous gallery of the White Bear Lake Center for the Arts, the jean jackets command attention.
Fitted on minimalist mannequins, they punch into the space, bold in color and detail. Many have patches with a black hand on a white circle. They say House of Daskarone — an alias for the artist inspired by his mother’s nickname for him.
One stands out, seemingly embroidered with hundreds of black and white beads. On closer inspection, the beads are the nozzles from spray paint cans. This is, after all, a 40-year retrospective for one of Minnesota’s preeminent and longest-practicing graffiti artists: Peyton Scott Russell.
Russell says the jackets refer to the first wave of hip hop that came to the area in the 1980s.
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“In the Twin Cities, the jean jacket was the one thing that kind of really rose up in the graffiti community more than like actually going out and tagging and painting with spray paint,” Russell says. “The jean jacket became the icon: if you are going to be graffiti writer, you had to paint jean jackets.”
Before the exhibition closes on March 3, Russell is completing 20 more custom jackets that will be on display for one night only, at the closing reception on the evening of March 2. The jackets are a very recent commission from Red Bull, and, as of the last day of February, Russell said they were in the embroidery stage.
The jackets are only one medium in this multifaceted retrospective, which ranges from early childhood artwork he made while growing up in Minneapolis to his work with Sprayfinger, a youth artist nonprofit he founded. From photography of decades worth of graffiti on the streets of the Twin Cities to hints of his latest installation for Burning Man, the art festival in the Nevada desert.
“He received the Bush Fellowship for making graffiti art a fine art,” says Sara Nephew, the Center’s creative services director, explaining how the fellowship helped him form Sprayfinger. “It is just so remarkable that he's a fellow Minnesotan, and willing to share his work with all of us here.”
Reflecting on the retrospective, Russell says he’s discovered his commitment to investigating dualities has been present in his art practice since his earliest days.
One of those dualities, he says, is being born to a white mother and Black father, and splitting time between homes in south and north Minneapolis.
“I've grown up in both communities, and I've always tried to stitch those families together and never understood why everybody, like, hates each other,” he says. “In the society, I'm just looked at as like a light-skinned Black guy, and I've always thought that was wrong because it negates who my mom is, and who the other half of my family is. So, I always dragged that along.”
Before the retrospective, Russell went digging in his mom’s basement for art he made as a kid and what he found shook him: a papier-mâché African mask and a drawing of the Norse god Thor, both of which are in the show.
“There I am as a child, expressing both of those halves of myself,” he says. “I had to stop for a moment to go, ‘Oh my god, I was doing that back then.”
Russell’s most recent work explores that duality, too, as well as straddling the worlds of fine art and graffiti.
He’s creating large-format portraits of biracial couples, couples of “Black African and white European-American” backgrounds, many of which are in the show. They were also part of a larger commission for Burning Man in the summer of 2022. That installation was called “BlackBook (Remix)” which he calls an exploration of the “fallacy of race.”
“It's really interesting to hear other people say it from their perspective — how family treats them when they're kind-of dating outside their race; what kind of looks they get when they're in society,” Russell says. “Then I'm going to do the dive of the children of these couples, which of course, that's me.”
Another major part of the retrospective is a piece Russell debated including at all: “Icon of a Revolution,” the famous black-and-white mural he created for George Floyd Square in 2020. The 12-foot tall mural is comprised of four pieces of plywood. So large that Kyle Fredrickson, the Center’s resident artist, says he had to build a special wall for it.
This is the first time the mural has been on public view since Russell removed it from the square. Russell did not advertise it as part of the show, and it’s intentionally placed so visitors cannot see it from the gallery entrance.
“Specifically, I said ‘This piece cannot be seen from the hallway.’ You have to actually walk into the gallery, you have to spend time there,” Russell says.
The artist describes ambivalent feelings about it, explaining that he has been struggling for decades to make a name for himself and this piece now seems to define his career.
“George Floyd did that,” he says. “I hate that's how it had to happen, but that's how it happened. So, I'm grateful for that, but it's heartbreaking that it needed to take that.”
Even so, Russell wanted it to be seen.
“It needs to be seen, it doesn't need to be in my studio doesn't need to be in storage. You know, and I don't want the piece to go to a museum, because museums only cater to a certain demographic of people,” he says. “I created that piece to be a source of comfort and a sort of place of understanding, and sort of a realization to what happened and that we need to do things differently as a society, and a community, so the piece needs to circulate.”
Russell doesn’t know when or if “Icon of a Revolution” will be on public view again. He’s in conversation with the family of George Floyd, but it’s a delicate thing, he says.
With his first-ever retrospective about to close, Russell is turning his focus to his next project which looks at another duality, he says, that of insider and outsider, those with power and those who have been marginalized.
This will be another stencil portrait project, slated for Burning Man this summer, featuring the Paiute people who are native to the site of the festival. He’s been in talks with local Paiute residents and meeting over video chat.
“I'm casting their faces out on the playa [the Burning Man term for the desert site of the festival] in shadow form to show their connection to the land and the strength of the people,” he says.