Making Mischief

Miskitoos (l) and Thomasina Topbear in front of their “Protect Our Sisters” mural at Nawayee Center School in Minneapolis. Photo by Sarah Whiting

Among the bustle of Lake Street in Minneapolis, across from a used car lot and Midtown Global Market, is a mural on the Division of Indian Work building. It features the words Miigwech, Pidamaya, Pinagini — “thank you” in the Ojibwe, Dakota, and Ho-Chunk languages. Words stand bold against a sky-blue background, flourished with strawberry- pink and moss-green floral and geometric designs. The mural exudes gratitude and asks the viewer what they are grateful for, creating a place of reflection and reclamation. To see Indigenous language bold and vibrant on the street is empowering, a reminder that we are — and always have been — here.

The work was created by City Mischief Murals, a collective supported by lifelong graffiti artists and muralists Thomasina Topbear and Miskitoos. Topbear, who is Oglala Lakota and Santee Dakota, began painting murals almost 20 years ago, when her foster parent encouraged her to paint their garage. She went on to paint with several BIPOC–centered (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) graffiti collectives to cope with myriad social issues she faced as a young person, including trauma from homelessness and parental incarceration.

Miskitoos, of the Marten Falls Anishinaabe and Constance Lake Oji-Cree First Nation communities, first exercised her creative energies with her grandmother, who practiced traditional arts such as beadwork, quillwork, and birchbark biting.

City Mischief was first imagined in 2014, during a brainstorming session between Topbear and local artist Joy Spika. The name was born from the spirit of mischief within street art, paired with the idea that the city is the artist’s landscape. Although their paths wound in different directions for a few years, the artists who now comprise the collective came together to paint plywood murals during the 2020 uprising after the killing of George Floyd. It was then, Topbear and Miskitoos say, that the heart of City Mischief became clearly realized.

“There had been so much mourning and pain. There was a need for BIPOC artists to lean on one another and move forward in healing collectively,” Miskitoos says.

Topbear adds, “It was really important to all of us that we had a safe space to practice our crafts as Indigenous, Black, and Latinx folks.”

City Mischief practices public art as a method to reclaim space, using culturally relevant messaging, colors, and visuals to speak to folks who do not always get to hold public space.

“Growing up as Native youth, we didn’t identify with our surroundings in the city,” Topbear says. “There wasn’t a lot that represented us. The Native community in Saint Paul was really small. Being able to ride the bus and see graffiti I knew was done by my friends that acknowledged our existence — this reminder to everyone that these buildings we are writing on are built on our land due to decades of genocide and forced attempts at assimilation — that was healing and empowering.”

Stylistically, Topbear tends toward bright colors and bold lines, reflecting the geometric patterns of Dakota and Lakota art. Miskitoos, on the other hand, expresses affinity for earth tones and the geometric patterns abundant in Cree art. The collective uses straight, clean letters to send clear, straight- to-the-point messages. Their murals feature positive representations of BIPOC women, Native languages, and traditional Indigenous patterns.

City Mischief artists have backgrounds in youth support work and “do a lot of community work,” Topbear says. With a grant from Forecast Public Art, they are planning murals at the Ain Dah Yung Mino Oski Center, a culturally relevant housing center for Indigenous youth facing homelessness in Saint Paul. They have partnered with Nawayee Center School and are working on a project with the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center.

“I have always felt the need to do community work because I was raised by the community,” Topbear says. “When I paint murals, it is my way of giving back to the community that has taken care of me.”

Miskitoos adds a historical perspective: “Our traditional languages were oral languages we communicated via rock paintings and carvings. Indigenous people have been painting on walls for a long time.”

Painting large murals is a way, Miskitoos says, “to make the invisible visible.”

“People may have no idea what is going on in the Native community,” she continues, “but if they are seeing a huge mural involving the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, they might start to talk about it and educate themselves. That can spread.”

“And start conversations that need to be had,” Topbear adds.

Future projects include a mural for the American Indian Family Center and a Native graffiti exhibition curated by Topbear titled “Reclaimed Spaces.” They plan to continue teaching mural painting skills. One effort took place in September, when City Mischief partnered with Feeding Frogtown to create a mural while collecting food donations.

“As muralists, when we go out, we are painting something that has meaning to us. It is healing. When you heal yourself, other people can feel that,” Topbear says. “When people see these murals and it brightens their day, that is an important community tool to build joy and uplift BIPOC voices.”