Graffiti Art Brings Hope To Reservation

Apr 12, 2013

At a time when ever-changing values and varying beliefs are shifting what defines “good,” “tasteful” and “fine” – few areas are more impacted than the world of art. Today we visit a young Native American man to discuss the evolution of a creative form that was once only considered juvenile vandalism.

It’s a busy afternoon in the village of Pine Ridge. Cars regularly come and go at the local supermarket as two young men stand before a nearby building holding cans of spray paint.

These two artists known as “Focus” and “AMP” are busy creating graffiti on a 30-foot long wall. But this isn’t vandalism, says Focus – this is art.

The Pine Ridge Reservation's "Hope" Mural - by Focus and AMP
Credit Courtesy Lakota Voice Project

“I believe that there’s a very strong difference between the term that is used as graffiti and then there’s just flat out vandalism,” observes Focus. “And the vandalism is what is often seen and mixed, intertwined with the terminology and the use of the word graffiti.”

Derek “Focus” Smith is Lakota and Dine`. He grew up in “the cities” – in an environment where the stereotypical image of graffiti as words and names illegally sprayed on buildings, highway overpasses and subway trains was the norm. Focus says that’s not what he does, but it is where graffiti art originated.

“It is disheartening and very disrespectful for somebody to go and, you know, ruin somebody else’s property,” Focus comments. “I firmly know that I wouldn’t want that to happen to my own property. I think that the art now that is seen should be appreciated for its qualities and its origins, because there’s no separating the two. They’re one begat from the other and that’s the way that it has been and that’s the way that it always will be.”

Put another way, you can’t separate modern popular music from its rock’n’roll roots or the boogie-woogie and jazz that preceded that or the blues that started it all.

But as AMP – Aaron Michael Pearcy – notes, pointing to an adjacent wall that’s covered with illegal sprayings called “scrawlings,” it’s pretty easy for anyone to tell the difference between graffiti art and vandalism.

"Gang scrawlings shouldn't be confused with graffiti art" - AMP
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

"What we’re looking at right here is a, uh, call it a gang,” says AMP. “They just come through and they write their name and they like to have their presence known in the area. And so they just go through and they hit every wall that they can without getting caught.”

AMP and Focus have a different mission by creating a graffiti mural on a wall, and they say that is has nothing to do with gang vandalism. AMP comes from a fine art background and says that his work is relative.

“A muralist or you could call him a graffiti artist as well if he uses a spray can, which generally is why people call it graffiti is because it’s art using a spray can,” explains AMP. “That’s, in essence what it is. And so, I could be using an air brush and somebody could still call it graffiti, although I could show them what I’m using and they’d call it something else. So, it all depends on everyone’s mindset.”

Of course, the key to making graffiti such as this art is that it’s legal. Not only are Focus and AMP creating their mural on a wall with permission to do so, but the work is part of a larger project.

Graffiti artist Focus working on the Pine Ridge Reservation's "Hope" mural
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

"We’re producing a mural to raise the awareness to advocate for change of the youth here on the Pine Ridge Reservation due to the high suicide rate,” says Focus. “The intention is to produce a feeling and a motivation that would increase the level of hope amongst the youth.”

Focus – who chose his name to reflect changes he was making for himself and his family – intends to create a “Hope” mural on each reservation in the state. The Pine Ridge version includes the face of a beautiful Lakota woman. Her long black hair flows into a tree whose branches list the seven Lakota virtues. The Hope murals have the support of the Lakota Voice Project, a suicide prevention campaign backed by local members of the American Advertising Federation.

If that isn’t evidence enough of graffiti’s acceptance in the mainstream world, there’s The Dahl Arts Center, home to the Rapid City Arts Council. Tyler Read is the Center’s co-director of arts education and a graffiti artist himself. Read sees letters, words and pictures with a message on a wall as a natural evolution of art in a culture that’s been marketed to for years.

“And graffiti is really a sort of an extension of advertising and marketing, really, in its most creative form,” Read observes. “You know, we design our own fonts. We design imagery. We select places to put these advertisements. And it’s just a campaign of ourselves or our later ego.”

The Dahl’s acceptance of graffiti as a serious art form may assist Focus and AMP in their long range goal of being considered for art commissions in public places – just as traditional painters and sculptors are.