A trip through the dewy sub-world of Twin Cities urban art
Our guide and photographer, who has taken thousands of pictures in multiple sites similar to this one, estimates that he has but scratched the surface of these underground galleries, having visited a mere 4-5 percent of all those in the Twin Cities. They’re not easy to find, and for the casual observer to become acquainted with these treasure troves, they must first be introduced by someone who knows better.
“You never meet people down here, but there’s so much evidence of humans,” said the guide, an easy-going, baritone voiced man in his early twenties, who chooses to remain anonymous. “Like you’ll see footprints, but it could be from five days ago.”
The hobby of urban exploration, oftentimes inseparably part of a lifestyle, is a devotion based on honor and secrecy. The process of discovering new locations is somewhat of a game for enthusiasts, where one builds credit through the evidence of their exploits, sharing stories and pictures through online forums and apps like Instagram. Once you’ve proven that you have something to offer, then people start to talk. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the growing number of adventurers in the urban exploring community, inquiries often go unanswered. Those most intimately related to these spaces—the artists themselves—don’t want people getting hurt, or worse, their work being discovered by the police.
To avoid any such interaction with Minneapolis’ finest, we made our descent late one night under the guidance of the moonlight. After hopping a fence and scooting down a slope of ice and snow, we saw first evidence of the artists and their tags.
“Graffiti is what you put on the side of buildings. This, down here, is art,” said the guide as we strapped on our headlamps at the foot of the drain entrance. “I’ve probably bought 30 flashlights in the past year.”
Upon entering the tunnel, one is reminded that surprise precipitation could prove deadly, as even on the driest of nights, runoff water pours down both overhead, and from dozens of cavernous tributaries within the drain system. The vacant solace is curbed only by the splendid art that continues quite literally for miles, and the occasional beer can that reminds the visitor that they are not alone. Either due to the isolation from natural light, or the fascination to be had from participating in the moment, time and space expand into immeasurable factors.
Perhaps a mile in, there lies a cosmically-colored nude woman laden in fantastic detail, spanning an area larger than a standard lens can capture. There was an obstreperous desire to snap a photo, but the guide was not interested. Too sensitive, time consuming, and intimate was the artist’s work to be smuggled out of the drain by an outsider.
Walk another mile or two and you will arrive at the first “helix,” a spiral staircase rushing with water that is more reminiscent of a theme park than an access point. After what seemed to be an endless climb against the current, we arrived at another series of tunnels. Here we encountered work that was less elaborate, but equally eccentric. Pages from old porno mags lined the walls: women spreading, men flaunting, even dinosaurs on humans. We slouched against the tunnel walls to take a break before heading back to the outside world, listening to the rumble of cars overhead echoing all around us.
The trip back was equally fascinating, as we stopped frequently to take pictures and reflect on our favorite pieces. “Some people want to see graffiti, some want to see a new abandoned building,” said the guide. “A lot of people are proud when they get into a building and there’s nothing there. Others are happy to shoot the graffiti. That’s my contribution.”
At some point, we spotted a light glowing at the other end of the tunnel. “Hello!” called the guide. There was no answer.
It’s not often you encounter someone else in a place such as this, and it’s not always buddy-buddy when you do. We continued on, but the light at the other end didn’t budge. As we drew close, the guide called out once more, and at last, we received a friendly response.
Upon surfacing, the tunnel dweller feels somewhat sub-human. The world is suddenly wide open, overwhelming and disorienting. At least for a moment or two, part of you still feels trapped underground. Those curious enough should go at their own risk. You will get wet, you may get soaked, but the warmth of adventure is sure to bring back the brave, the dimwitted and the addicted.