Graphic Change

From graffiti to animation, Juxtaposition Arts gives kids tools for self-expression

ON A RECENT WEEKNIGHT at Juxtaposition Arts in north Minneapolis, a Japanese cartoon flashes across a laptop, its sound effects blasting from a boom box. Two girls, about age 7, sit transfixed in front of the screen, mouths agape, braids framing eyes wide open. Eventually their instructor, a young Japanese woman, Satoko Muratake, asks them, “Do you want to draw?” And do they ever.

The kids make a simple visual trick, drawing on both sides of a circular piece of paper, maybe a fish on one side, a bowl on the other. Then they spin the circle with a couple of strings so the two sides flip around so fast the images blur and the fish appears to be inside the bowl—animation, of a sort. It’s not how Walt Disney did it. But that’s fine—old Walt wouldn’t know Pokemon from Pikachu. This class is anime (pronounced a-ni-may), the Japanese style of animation—all spiky hair, big eyes, and karate chops. It’s what the kids are into, and whatever the kids are into is what Juxtaposition Arts is up to.

Juxtaposition Arts—part classroom, part gallery, part community center—opened more than a decade ago, living a nomadic existence until settling recently on a corner of Broadway Avenue, the North Side thoroughfare, which could use a paint job, among other things. Most of Juxta’s projects happen beneath the radar of anyone unfamiliar with b-boys (break-boys, or break dancers) or the kind of streets where murals (many of them painted by Juxta students) decorate the urban landscape. But recently, the center had a sort of coming out: the organization was commissioned by developer Ralph Burnet to paint a graffiti-art mural on the stairwell walls of his glamorous new Chambers Hotel in downtown Minneapolis.

Photo by Juxtaposition Arts

The Chambers is a long way from Juxta’s origins. Its founders, Roger Cummings and Peyton (a mono-monikered artist who left a couple of years ago to pursue his kickboxing dreams) were childhood friends on the North Side who began making graffiti art in the early 1980s. Graffiti art is one of the elements of hip-hop culture, the others being rap music, break dancing, and deejaying. Back then, when Cummings was known as Roger Dodger, he and Peyton would spray-paint venues for hip-hop shows, airbrush jackets and pants, and yes, sometimes find themselves in trouble for practicing an art that was born on the side of New York subway cars and has always straddled the legal divide. So in 1995, the young men formed Juxtaposition as a place for kids to learn and exhibit graffiti art and other media, and were soon joined by Cummings’s wife, DeAnna, who was then working at the State Council on Black Minnesotans. What began with 12 kids now serves 600 annually through art classes and workshops; a dozen legal graffiti murals created by Juxta kids now grace the city.

Juxta bills itself as being rooted “in the values and aesthetics of hip-hop culture”—which can sound scary to anyone who thinks hip-hop is and always has been about bling, babes, and Bentleys. But the music that DeAnna and Roger talk about is that of the late 1970s and early ’80s, when hip-hop music, then in its infancy, was the voice of urban youth.

“Hip-hop took a bad turn when adults got involved,” says DeAnna. “It became all about the money.” Most hip-hop expression today, adds Roger, is commodified and constructed. “Back in the day, people had positive street ethics,” he says. “Now, it’s solely thug culture.”

Juxta’s projects are more about hugs than thugs. Banners created last year to decorate the neighborhood have themes of respect and peace and bear such messages as “guns are bad.” As civic plans to revitalize north Minneapolis are drawn up, DeAnna and Roger would like their paint-splattered, good-vibes vision to be a part of it. “Creativity is power,” DeAnna says. And, at least in their corner of the city, spray guns beat real guns any day.