Rock artist Prince released the movie Graffiti Bridge and its soundtrack 32 years ago. Their namesake, a railroad span over Valley View Road in Eden Prairie, was just five miles east of Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen.
The bridge’s abutments had become canvasses of layered spray and brush painted “Let’s Go Crazy” shouts for Prince, peace, school graduations and upright middle fingers. The following year, 1991, the railroad span was demolished. The album — a hit; the film — a critical dud; the bridge — a memory.
Two miles away, on quiet Indian Chief Road, another graffiti-spackled bridge still carries freight trains. Built in 1930, it has yet to inspire an album, a movie or much interest.
Monday, Dec. 28, 2020: A grey, featureless sky and a throw of snow had fixed Eden Prairie into a monochromatic slide show. I turned off County Road 62 onto Indian Chief Road alongside the 8th fairway of Glen Lake Golf Course. I was heading towards the railroad bridge, Birch Island Woods and home.
I carefully snailed down the icy slant to the bridge, slow enough to notice its weathered concrete and graffiti. It was framed in a feathering of snow. It could have been a diorama at the Bell Museum of Natural History.
At the underpass, I took a right into Eden Wood. The rustic, all-season camp serves children with special needs. I parked the car and walked back to the bridge with a camera.
I have driven and bicycled under the Indian Chief Road bridge for some 25 years. The pavement narrows to 20 feet for the underpass. A MnDOT bridge inventory classifies it as a two-laner. Locals know better.
Most drivers slow to a crawl for oncoming vehicles, one car at a time. Minnesota Nice and warning signs help prevent crashes. But there are no pedestrian lanes to take safe measure of the crazy quilts of hearts, save-the-planet, political and naughty blazes of graffiti. Sharing the tunnel with a silent, fast-moving Tesla is not an option.
Those armed with cans of spray paint probably work in the dark with get-in and get-out urgency. Eden Prairie city code considers them vandals, but they could just be neighbors hankering to make a point more durable than an emoji on a smartphone screen.
No single note, joke or trope on the bridge is art, but to my eye that afternoon, the whole assemblage of aging concrete and graffiti was a pleasing eye-opener.
I sent self-curated images of the bridge to a few artist friends as well as to a gallery in Edina and another in Eden Prairie. I wanted to know if established painters and collectors shared my appreciation. I paired highbrow phrases like mise en scène and plein-air with box cars and buckthorn thickets.
The cognoscenti politely replied that they knew of no one within their circles who would likely indulge my curiosity. A non-galleried Eden Prairie artist was a tad snippy when I asked what she thought of the bridge. Don Holzschuh, a painter known for Minneapolis and European streetscapes, replied on Facebook with a single word: “Vandalism.” Others flicked virtual spitballs at the prospect of browsing through my graffiti photos.
But not Minneapolis visual artist Morgan Brooke and New York City photographer Dennis O’Brien. I have Brooke prints in our home. O’Brien, a television producer with whom I’ve worked, shows his photographs in galleries and on Facebook.
Having seen my photos, Morgan Brooke wrote, “… what is most important is emphasis on process. That’s what makes any graffiti wall combo art. There’s a different vibe in ‘art for the people’ — it’s a collective or collaborative expression of a subgroup. We don’t know the individuals, but we know who they are: proud vandals, some are angry, some tell the world they’re in love, some paint whatever they hope will offend ‘the man.’ All different, but (very important), not people like us.
“The layers [of paint]make it grow. … Covid put a damper on everything, maybe the next layer will be about the pandemic and the insurrection.”
A sampling of Indian Chief Road bridge photos considered by various artists.
Dennis O’Brien’s cameras focus on New York City, including its robust buffets of graffiti. He links Eden Prairie’s modest exhibits to a wider community:
“Graffiti Bridge speaks of the inevitability of visual expression wherever it can blossom and thrive. When you look at the similarity of graffiti from all over the country and the world — it seems as though someone must be transmitting topics to a waiting audience from Manhattan to Minnesota, Maui to Melbourne. Graffiti will always be around — the words and pictures of hearts and hate; the messages of passion or peace; the determined guerrilla artists fight a battle against complacency. They demand to be seen. And thus heard.”
Down by the tracks
Derelict industrial buildings, subways and railroads nationwide have long been blessed or cursed by graffiti appliqués. Twin Cities and Western Railroad (TC&W) is listed on a MnDOT bridge inventory as the custodian and owner of the 92-year-old Indian Chief Road span. Railroads are responsible for cleaning up graffiti on their properties even though it is slapped on by what state statute defines as trespassing vandals.
Eden Prairie Public Works Director Robert Ellis explains that the city is required to routinely inspect and report to MnDOT on bridges within its boundaries. Its May 19, 2021 inspection of the Indian Chief Road Bridge and TC&W’s own inspections found no critical deficiencies or safety hazards. Which means graffiti clean-up of the Indian Chief Road span may not be high on TC&W’s to-do list. Railroads are primarily concerned with the safety and timely shipment of goods.
Spray can vandal confessions
Joyce and Doug Myhre drive on Indian Chief Road maybe twice a week. Back in the 1980s, when Prince was soaring into the iconasphere, its bridge was just a bridge, while the one on Valley View began sporting increasingly bolder and creative paint jobs.
Joyce and her friends would tag happy birthday wishes on the Valley View bridge. “Once in a blue moon,” she says, “you’d see a four letter word on there.”
Joyce tells a Graffiti Bridge Christmas story. While driving to the airport to pick up her Swedish cousin Ingvar Augustsson, husband Doug and daughter Ann Marie tagged an abutment with “WELCOME TO E.P. U.S.A. INGVAR.” Ingvar was visiting Eden Prairie to experience an American Christmas.
Graffiti Bridge was considered a bothersome eyesore by a number of Valley View Road commuters. During rush hours, bumper-to-bumper cars waited for traffic signals to green-light them through the one-car-at-time underpass.
Those traffic signals were installed courtesy of a deal crafted by then Director of Public Works Gene Dietz and Eden Prairie Center mall. Gene explained earlier this week that the shopping center’s entrance near U.S. Bank no longer needed signals. They were moved to the Valley View Road bridge.
Regarding the city’s take on the Valley View graffiti, Gene recalls that everyone knew about it but “turned a blind eye. We even put a garbage can nearby for paint cans.”
When Graffiti Bridge was scheduled to be removed for road improvements and widening, the City Council considered installing a new wall, a safe zone — for paint blasters. But the idea seemed a tad contrived and vandal-friendly. It was dropped.
Gene Dietz says that he has never seen a Prince movie or owned one of his albums. Nonetheless, he hoarded a chunk of the actual bridge as a keepsake. “Probably to be thrown [away],” he quipped, “when I’m gone and our children have to have an estate sale.”
Joyce Myhre also saved a souvenir chunk. Asked if she would like it appraised on PBS’s Antique Road Show, she sighed then replied, “Ohhhh, I don’t think so.”
Joyce salvaged her shard on Sunday, May 19, 1991. She was among 200-plus Graffiti Bridge fans attending a farewell party thrown by the city.
The Eden Prairie News reported that Valley View Road was closed and that hayrides, games and refreshments were provided. The local Sherwin-Williams store donated 70 cans of spray paint. In retrospect, it is clear that the good citizens of Eden Prairie did their thing, and the cops didn’t do their thing: No tickets were issued.
The other bridge
If the Indian Chief Road bridge is ever demolished, there will be no rowdy wake, no artsy-fartsy eulogies, no hay rides. I may not shed a tear, but …
I’ll know that one of America’s most elegant passenger trains, the Milwaukee Road’s streamlined Olympian Hiawatha, cruised over this sad sack span. I’ll know it supported steam locomotives and long Milwaukee Road, Soo Line and TC&W diesel-powered freight trains.
I’ll know that this bridge has been tagged with swastikas, chemical tank car warnings, peace symbols and a timid, spray-painted claim: Lori and Julie forever own this bridge.
Indian Chief Road Bridge this October
Editors note: Writer Jeff Strate also serves on EPLN’s Board of Directors.
Minnesota graffiti damage statute
Bridges of Eden Prairie story by Jim Bayer
Photographer Dennis O’Brien’s website.
Visual Artist Morgan Brooke’s website.
Painter Don Holzschuh’s website.
Dennis O’Brien on graffiti
Dennis O’Brien and I spent our premier year in New York City working on a syndicated television magazine series. Our TV careers continued ,but on separate tracks. We still produce shows, but Dennis has also become an ace photographer with a sharp, aesthetic eye for cityscapes. Below, he has more to say about graffiti. Jeff Strate
I have always loved graffiti — or most of it. I know that this may not be a popular attitude because when I say it, I’m immediately accosted by those who say other people don’t have the right to just use walls, lampposts, sidewalks, windows, and yes, bridges, as their public platform. Well, to explain a bit, I’m not talking about spray painting hate slogans on a church or temple, I’m talking about decorating some spots, such as Graffiti Bridge, that otherwise are a dull, lifeless, gray surface.
Check out a book called The Faith of Graffiti (1974) by Norman Mailer and photographer Jon Naar. Many of the pictures of graffiti-covered subway cars and walls illustrated what many felt was a terrible blight on the city — a glaring example of its decline in those terrible times. Mailer thought otherwise. He felt this was the birth of graffiti as an art form. If he saw the city today, I believe he’d think his feelings have been validated.
When I was a kid, graffiti seemed to be something that, if it happened, it happened elsewhere — most likely in a big city. I don’t remember Rochester, New York, where I grew up having any graffiti — until one day in high school. My friends and I had heard there was an abandoned subway tunnel in downtown Rochester that was easy to enter. We decide to see if that was true. It was and we entered the cold, dark tunnels to find all kinds of colorful graffiti painted on these hidden walls. I was amazed that these artists (or vandals, as they were identified by many) let loose these colors and creativity on such a concealed canvas. Sure, there were occasional glimpses of childish or angry outbursts — love gone wrong or hate aimed at minorities. But way back then (the 1960s), there was proof that places like Graffiti Bridge would always exist, no matter where you were.
When I see the photos of Graffiti Bridge, I immediately think of similar places adorned with graffiti. They’re all over — sometimes off the beaten path — sometimes right there in the middle of a well-traveled neighborhood. Wherever graffiti and murals pop up, they are certain to spread quickly. Why? It’s simple — these visuals are expressions — the person doing it isn’t worried about anything more than making a mark — adding to the conversation. Some call it a desperate call for attention.
On Graffiti Bridge, you can see the hearts of love and the political triggers (Trump’s name) that seem to exist everywhere. Maybe the artist didn’t know what other message to put out there — maybe it’s exactly the message they wanted to be seen. People who hate graffiti liken it to mold — once it finds a way in, a spot for a foothold — it spreads quickly. That’s why more remote locations, like Graffiti Bridge, which are not harmful to architecture or landscape, thrive and will last until the world changes around them.
There was a place in Queens, N.Y., called 5 POINTZ. This was the Mecca of muralists and graffiti artists from all over the globe. It’s gone now. It first existed because the building’s owner allowed, almost encouraged it to exist and thrive. But then along came “development” and the power of profit conquered the creative oasis. In the dead of night, it was whitewashed and the stunning, block-long building was soon razed for luxury residences. The world had caught up to 5 Pointz but the spirit wasn’t extinguished. Some were allowed to remain, but 5 Pointz as a cultural destination was erased.
Graffiti Bridge speaks of the inevitability of visual expression wherever it can blossom and thrive. When you look at the similarity of graffiti from all over the country and the world, it seems as though someone must be transmitting topics to a waiting audience from Manhattan to Minnesota, Maui to Melbourne.
Graffiti will always be around — the words and pictures of hearts and hate; the messages of passion or peace; the determined guerilla artists fight a battle against complacency. They demand to be seen. And thus heard.
Dennis O’Brien, June 8, 2022
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