Peyton Scott Russell can’t quite explain why, when he was painting George Floyd’s face, he dripped a burst of aerosol on Floyd’s cheek. A tear, falling from Floyd’s eye.
He hadn’t planned it. But that’s what he sees now, too.
He can’t quite explain how the painting, 12 feet tall and so heavy it took a team to lift, ended up where it did at 38th and Chicago. Bolted to a bus shelter, also 12 feet tall.
He hadn’t measured it. But that’s where it fit, nearly flush.
All he can say is that something was guiding his making of that mural, which he painted, weeping, during the curfew, as the city was smoldering. Peyton, as he prefers to be known, is not a religious person, “but it was like God was leading the whole thing — every step.”
This moment in Minneapolis, made more vivid and immediate by the murals that appeared on plywood and pavement, has transformed Peyton, a pioneering graffiti writer and teaching artist. The 51-year-old is making, perhaps for the first time, protest art. Pieces that have defined the movement. Pieces that will likely cement his legacy.
Unlike the colorful mural of Floyd that first appeared on that corner, Peyton’s massive, grayscale portrait captured, with its tone and its tear, the tragedy of what went down there. His achromatic “K” in the multi-artist Black Lives Matter street painting on Plymouth Avenue N. had a solemn attitude, too. Then there’s his stately painting titled “Rise Up,” on Highpoint Center for Printmaking: a young Black girl, her fist in the air.
“I knew art was powerful, but I have been discovering its ability to change things and move people,” he said. “It’s a new frame, but I am starting to see.”
Until recently, his most famous work was unsigned: He was the artist who, perched on a pile of flowers in front of First Avenue, turned Prince’s star gold.
For decades, Peyton has been painting his name across boxcars and bridges. But the murals he’s made recently, works that grapple with identity and power, are becoming a different kind of signature.
During a summer that thrust new attention on street art — along with its sometimes messy politics — Peyton drew on his deep roots in both north and south Minneapolis with artists young and old, on buildings and behind the scenes.
“I’ve witnessed a sensei, if you will, taking his rightful place with his ability to translate and emote what people are feeling through fine art that has a street influence,” said Houston White, owner of barbershop-meets-boutique Houston White Men’s Room. As a teenager, White became Peyton’s first student, trading haircuts for screenprinting lessons in Peyton’s studio, where the North Side nonprofit Juxtaposition Arts was born.
“As a fifty-year-old biracial man who was raised in a place where Prince was created, he’s found his place in his dojo,” White said. “I see him getting real comfortable in his own skin.”
Finding his voice
Peyton grew up on that corner. Before Cup Foods was Cup Foods, back when the Speedway was a 7-Eleven, he and his brother Kai lived in that neighborhood and biked to those stores.
When he saw the video of Floyd, a police officer pinning his neck to the pavement, he saw his dad’s face, too.
“I kept thinking, if I were there, what would I have done? I would have been dead, too.”
He wanted to protest. He wanted to fight. But his mentors reminded him: Use the voice you’ve honed. So instead, he painted.
The plan was to create large-scale portraits of Floyd, dropping them off in different spots around the city, in the middle of the street. Intrusive, in-your-face, “guerrilla-style art,” he said. Sculptor Andrew MacGuffie built him the canvas, so big he couldn’t project his rendering of Floyd’s selfie onto it at the right angle.
So Peyton had to do it old-school, sketching a grid.
He’d made many grids before. When he was 14, Peyton watched the documentary film “Style Wars,” about the hip-hop and graffiti scene in New York City, and within days was spray painting under a bridge. He focused on printmaking at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, fell in love with Abstract Impressionism. He became a teacher, a professional kickboxer (for a time) and a father of two.
But he kept coming back to graffiti, to the detriment of his relationship. “It’s 2009, 2010, and I’m out painting trains again,” he said, shaking his head.
Peyton loves the fuzziness and opacity of spray paint. The feel of the can in his hand helps him forget the ache in his hip. Writing on a wall late at night, in bright, slanted, stylized letters, he feels a touch of immortality. His name, suddenly part of the landscape.
Not his birth name but his graffiti alias, Daesk. That’s what his mother called him growing up and what he named his son (“on his birth certificate and everything”).
Having children pushed Peyton to clarify his purpose. In 2011, depressed and broke, he applied for a Bush Fellowship, writing unapologetically about graffiti, treating it like the fine art it is. He won and, years after leaving Juxtaposition Arts, built a new teaching venture, SprayFinger.
This summer, when the plywood appeared, he brought his students out to paint and to witness a shift. The community had the chance to watch “in real time” as artists spoke their minds via murals, he said.
“I think that really opened the door to have people look at street art in a different way.”
‘A gift’ to the community
Up on a lift beside a brick building, 20 feet in the air, Peyton shook a can of spray paint as his kids played on the grass below. Pink, first — long and loose across a stencil of a man’s face. Puffs of purple, next. He tossed down an empty, and Daesk, now 13, ran over to grab it.
With his left hand, Peyton sprayed some red. Pshhh. Pshhh. Pshhh. He paused, stepped back, then gently lifted the stencil to reveal a man’s glasses, smile and beard. The face of a person who purchased a nearby home.
Dozens of bright, stenciled faces now cover the side of the City of Lakes Community Land Trust, a nonprofit on Glenwood Avenue N. that works to make buying homes more affordable. During workshops, the new homeowners helped craft those stencils, Peyton said, giving them ownership of the mural, too.
Usually when he’s working on a wall, people stop to chat. But with this piece, people stayed quiet. Reverent, even. He realized they were looking for particular faces — Philando Castile and Breonna Taylor, among them.
“That’s the time we live in,” he said.
These times have hit Peyton hard. He’s been confronting the struggles of growing up in a mixed-race family, the memories of police pulling him over and roughing him up. “The suffering and the pain of our community, generation after generation.”
So, when Doritos and ICU Arts contacted him about making a mural, he focused on the hope of the youngest generation: a Black girl raising her fist so high it breaks the frame.
It took four tries to find that piece a home. The owners of one spot even argued that it would promote civil unrest, he said.
Once the threat of fire and damage subsided, some Minneapolis businesses abandoned the Black Lives Matter messages they’d affixed to their windows. But Highpoint Center wanted something that would last, said Cole Rogers, its artistic director. Rogers had been talking to another artist to use its bright white building at 912 W. Lake St. as a canvas when he heard that Peyton, whom he had known during his screenprinting days, was looking for a place to do a mural.
“I saw the image and said, ‘Omigod, yes,’ ” Rogers said, choking up at the memory. “When it was 99 percent done, the model and her family came to see it. It was obviously such a gift to that family — and to the community.
“It was a life raft.”
Rogers, a master printer, sees in Peyton’s recent murals a culmination of his past artistic lives. The stenciling reminds him of pochoir, a French form of printmaking used by Picasso and other fine artists. The color is dabbed through with a short-hair brush, or in Peyton’s case, spray paint.
“What he’s doing is very dear to my heart,” Rogers said.
Prince’s gold star
Peyton has experienced once before the sense of kismet that brought his piece to 38th and Chicago.
When Prince died in 2016, Peyton first felt numb. He had a complicated history with the superstar who soundtracked his youth.
It was Prince who brought him back from Chicago: Peyton had become a bootleg-collecting fan by the time he was invited to show his art at Prince’s Glam Slam rock club in 1993. He then worked as a scenic artist at Paisley Park, where the superstar proved to be an ever-elusive, often-frustrating boss. Peyton cut out, eager to do his own thing. He stopped playing Prince’s albums.
But after his death, Peyton started listening, started remembering. “It was like I lost a family member.”
A former student had taught him how to apply gold leaf and, suddenly, he knew how he’d give his thanks. He waited a few weeks for the crowds outside First Ave to quiet. In the darkness, with a few friends keeping watch, he taped off the star on the brick wall, set the varnish and brushed on the gold.
He hadn’t thought to bring a stepstool. But bouquets left by fans brought him to just the right height.
“I remember thinking, I don’t care if I get arrested — I just have to get it done. If I get caught midstream, I’d become the guy who [messed] up the Prince star.”
Instead, City Pages dubbed him the “benevolent mystery vandal.”
“I kind of liked that,” he said, smiling.
Prince pops up twice in Peyton’s most recent mural, which he made as “a gift to the community.” For years, he’s been itching to paint the long wall on Wally’s Foods on Penn Avenue N. Last fall, before the cold cut things short, he started gridding the letters — NORTHSIDE — filling some in with faces of families, neighbors and people who frequent that corner, including barber and entrepreneur Houston White and his late wife, Donise.
On a recent Sunday, surrounded by cans and paintbrushes, Peyton stepped close, pressing his spray-paint-splattered fingers against a new line, then walked back, taking in the panorama. He nodded.
An 8-year-old girl with a ponytail ran up to the mural. She pointed to one face she recognized, then the next: “Mom, look!”