By Jules Struck
RAPID CITY, S.D. — One alley in Rapid City, South Dakota, has been the informal site for graffiti art for decades, but in 2016 the city decided to make the site into a formal, community-driven art project.
Nothing seems unusual about the corner of Paddy O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Grill on 6th Street in Rapid City, except a small sign that reads: “Welcome to Art Alley, painting permit required.”
It’s the site of Art Alley, the city’s formal outdoor space for graffiti artists and muralists. The alley is a shock of vibrant disorganized color compared to the clean streets between which it is sandwiched, like a portal into a paint box. “It’s kind of a fun, messy little public art project,” said Josie Weiland, spokeswoman for the Dahl Arts Center and Rapid City Arts Council, who issues the permits for artists to paint in the alley.
“It’s pretty inconsistent because everybody comes with their own unique style,” she said.
The permitting process for artists to participate in the project is fairly simple, said Weiland. As long as there’s no profanity or vulgarity, artists can put up whatever they would like, with the goal of elevating or matching the quality of the art that they might paint over.
The alley has historically featured a lot of Native American art, said Weiland, because Rapid City is home to a large population of Native peoples. Sometimes the murals are political, sometimes they’re whimsical.
Hope Christofferson grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and remembers her dad spray painting in art alley before it became a formal art project space. She’s an artist and muralist living outside of Copenhagen now but left her mark on the alley in summer 2020 with two murals.
She didn’t plan either of them. “The whole purpose of art alley is spontaneity, so going into it without a solid plan makes it way more adventure-filled,” she said.
Her work hasn’t been covered up yet. The first mural is a dark tree reaching across a blue moon. The second is an indigo staircase into the sky.
Her style is inspired by fairytales and mythologies, something cultivated from the books she liked to read when she was a kid, and her romps through the Black Hills.
“The hills and the trees, the mushrooms, the flowers — all of those things that were just kind of part of my life growing up as a kid,” she said. “I spent a lot of time in them, definitely, and fostered a sort of creative independence where I was able to just kind of do my own thing and not be interrupted, and just listen to the trees.”
Christofferson said she hopes that the alley can serve as an inspiration to reluctant artists in Rapid City.
“There isn’t much of an art culture in Rapid,” she said. “It’s getting better. But Art Alley is definitely one of the pillars.”
The alley is an asset for graffiti artists especially, said Tyler Read, who oversaw the permit system in 200X and has contributed to the walls. With illegal graffiti, “You don’t really get to hear any input about how your art is perceived,” he said, which can make it a very “self-focused” art form.
Read had trouble finding a community of artists in Rapid City when he first moved there, but Art Alley gave him that space.
“That’s why Art Alley was so important for me to see continue, because I wanted to see that empowerment for other people,” he said. “I do believe in the power of the space.”
Weiland points to nearby Mount Rushmore as an example of South Dakota’s art scene, which she referred to as “largest public art installation in the country.” Rapid City also has bronze statues of each U.S. president standing around town–another example of the city’s art culture.
But Art Alley is a different kind of space. “I think most people really do love it,” said Weiland. The site draws lots of tourists, and it has even become “Instagrammable,” she said, noting that people will go there to take wedding and prom photos.
For the immediate community, Art Alley is definitely a creative asset, she said. “Not a lot of cities have a place where street art is encouraged unless it’s a commissioned mural.”
Art Alley is a different, she said. “This is a free space to come down and do whatever you like.” Sure, kids still tag the artwork, or draw mustaches on beautifully crafted murals, but “that’s just the nature of having an outdoor public art gallery,” she added.
“It’s subjected to the elements and the creative spirit of passers-by,” she said.
For Christofferson, the alley is a valued outlet. “It was good experience knowing people got to see [the murals],” she said. “It wasn’t just a drawing that was closed in a private sketchbook.”
She knows that her art will be covered up eventually but sees that as part of the community’s artistic dialogue.
“If somebody likes the moon in mine, they might keep that … and create a cityscape. And the next person might be inspired by that cityscape,” she said. “So it’s this ongoing dialogue that you have as well, that’s really interesting to look at.”