Peyton Scott Russell is a Minneapolis graffiti artist and street artist who painted a 12′ x 12′ black and white spray paint portrait of George Floyd during the curfew and installed it at the bus stop at the intersection of 38th and Chicago, where Floyd was killed by police on May 25, 2020.
“Graffiti is the voice of people. I don’t want to go into it too politically because it really resides with the individual and what they’re trying to say and how they’re using it. There’s all kinds of different ways that people will use the environment to share themselves. And so, you know, graffiti is this beautiful conundrum of expression, without asking for permission. This is where you get this raw expression of us as humans and how we have this need to be recognized.
We have a need to speak, we have a need to be seen and graffiti opens the door for that. When you don’t ask for permission, you get people’s raw voice, for better or for worse.
Today, some of those things have been highlighted. Graffiti and street art have gotten so popular. People are recognizing that there’s something more to this than just mindless vandalism. These beautiful trains that everyone gets to see, or posters that pop up on the street corner or a really beautiful calligraphy kind of handwriting that ends up on an electrical box or a stop sign.
You’re putting yourself out there, you know, you’re putting your art out there, you’re putting your name into the world and then people will talk about that. Whether or not you’re good or not. And that’s a very vulnerable position to put yourself in. There’s an incredible amount of self-discovery and risk to be a street artist, to put yourself out there that way.
And so my program, I really focused on the art application of it, the aesthetic nature of it, the creative lettering. I’m an artist first. I’ve been creating art my entire life and graffiti was something I found in high school. So when I teach, I talk a lot about color theory and depth of field and all these art elements and design elements that are found in art. And then we’ll take the idea of what graffiti is all about, how do you spray paint? And, and then I’ll incorporate that into an artistic format and create curriculums and comprehensive lesson plans, for people to look at this mysterious art form that we see on the street and what that might be about and how you can actually participate and whether or not you choose to do that on the street or on the sanctioned environment, or you continue to kind of create a portfolio and have shows.
When you ask for permission, you’re already taking away part, to be allowed permission. Now you start thinking about, okay, is what I’m saying accepted and what do people want to hear? You might change your tone a bit. You start putting different parameters around it when you’re in a box, when you go down that sanctioned path. And then the people who give you permission can now start saying, well, can you do it like this? Can you take that out? Can you add this? Can you do less of that, more of this? And then you start opening the Pandora’s box of taking away your own expression.
You have to wait for the approval. Maybe you’re not even going to be able to do it. Asking for permission definitely puts limitations on your original intent.
So that’s where I find what’s really beautiful about this whole graffiti non-permission, non-sanctioned kind of thing. Because again, you get this raw reaction, this raw expression of someone and it’s not always pleasant. Sometimes, we need to actually say the things that we want. And this is the conundrum of it…it’s finding that raw value of every expression, but also being able to reach as many people as you can, without turning so many people off. I know when I’m out there painting, the most nervous thing I’m up against, is what happens tomorrow when the work is exposed to the world.
It’s your choice, but we talk about risk. We talk about choice of what you’re going to do, and it’s the one thing that I find it is unrivaled and unmatched by any other art, medium, any other art form is this street art, graffiti, is just a raw expression of human being.
I’ve been in this culture for 30 plus years and I’ve been through all of it. It focuses on who I am. I spend a lot of time contemplating my thoughts, my voice, how I think about things, how I see the world and then as an artist, you know, I think I have a responsibility of telling a story. Don’t let what people think, stop you from producing and stop you from being you. It’s part of our legacy as humans. What are you leaving behind? What is your contribution to the larger humanity? And that really works into what you’re doing. So of course don’t let people dictate what you’re going to do, but also, how can you have the highest impact of what you’re trying to say?
So I can tell you that I created [that portrait] during the curfew. When the curfew happened, our city was burning. Curfew came and that’s when the city burned. When they put the curfew out there, that’s when everything really ramped up. I was in my studio here creating that during curfew. And I remember negotiating with myself and trying to figure out how I’m going to get home. You know, I got to get home before 10. Usually that’s when I start work, I’m a late night guy. That’s when my creative juices really start flowing. And I was just like, okay, well I’ll just spent a night in studio. I do that a lot. But during this, you know, I got kids, so I had to be conscious of their schedule and making sure that they’re safe. So I say that because that was definitely a consideration while I was doing the work. How was I going to get home? What were the hours? And then how was I going to place it? When was I going to place it? It was a street art piece to be put up anonymously in the middle of the night.
There was a lot happening in that moment and I originally wanted to go out and protest physically. I wanted to be out in the trenches. I was angry and obviously I’m older. I’ve got kids and I had mentors calming me down, you know, I was just really amped up. And they were like, yo, you gotta calm down, man. Don’t forget, you have a stronger voice than trying to go out there physically. So maybe you should think about doing something that way. And I was like, wow, just for a moment, I had forgotten about that, because I was so angry. I just had this knee jerk reaction, like I got to do something.
So, you know, after it was pointed out to me that, I had a way that I could really do something. I’m a graffiti artist, street artist, so let me do something that’s really like hitting your face impactful. So I wanted to create the structure and I wanted it bolted into the middle of a street to disrupt traffic so when you drive down the street in the middle of the night, someone bolted this thing in the middle of the street, so you gotta go around it. The idea was for me to do that, to put his face out there to say, okay, look what you did to this guy.
That’s the whole thing in graffiti. You’re forced to see what we do. You paint this stuff in the vandalism format, you trespass, you painted on a wall or a train or something. Boom, in your face, you gotta deal with it. There it is for better or worse. So that was what my original intent was to put this somewhere that was kind of obnoxious, you know, create a piece of art, slap you in the face with it as my way of protesting what happened. So that was my first idea to do this. And a fellow sculptor friend of mine called me up. This is really weird. I’m not a super big religious guy, but there were definitely powers guiding this the entire way. Every step of the way
So this friend of mine called me when I was contemplating, like what should I do? And he’s not a street artist, he’s a sculptor, but he’s always been very interested in that kind of thing. This George Floyd thing happens and he calls me up and says, Hey, I think we should do something and I’m like, oh yes, you build a structure. I’ll paint on it. We’ll install it somewhere. That’s exactly what I want to do.
I said, I give me a minute, let me figure out, what are we going to make?, I’m in here looking at [the wall] like, I can go 12 feet. Let’s do 12 feet. So let’s make it a square. I remember thinking like Instagram, you know, take square pictures and it would be great for posting and it could get it more life that way. So I said, I’m just going to do a 12 foot by 12 foot square. He gets all the hardware, he shows up like the next day with his trailer, all this wood.
And he’s like, I got these two by fours. I got this plywood. And he actually built the frame out in the loading dock. And we had a bunch of people lift it up and pull it in here. You know, I secured it to the wall. It was like, okay, I got a 12 by 12 canvas. As I was working this, I ended up making it a little darker, a little more solid, a little bit more mysterious. I’m not like a portrait artist and to kind of freehand, it’s going to take me a while to get it right. I have to work it and rework it. But there’s no time. We’re in curfew. Time is of the essence.
I got to get this out there. So I’m kind of feeling a little anxious. I spent one night at the studio and painted the whole thing and there were highly emotional for me during that. You know, having Facebook on and seeing different news feeds coming in about what was going on, riots happening, our city’s burning and smoldering. So I’m in here painting this thing. I wept a few times, remembering the times that I’ve been profiled by police. Three separate occasions that are very pronounced to me today and I would reflect on those moments.
And so this emotional response to me was just…it was incredible. In the end, I think it really captured this whole pain and the sorrow and the struggles that my community has endured generation after generation. It was definitely something I created for the people. It was a community piece, something that I needed to give to my community, and I think I really reached outside of myself to make that happen. It’s just really my gift and I had to let it go, you know, paint it and put it on the street and just let it live in the street and let the community own it.”
-When have you been moved to create art?
-Have you taken risks in your life to express yourself?
-What is your understanding of / appreciation of street art and graffiti?
-How did you respond to the death of George Floyd?
-What has your reaction been to the street art that has been created in the aftermath?