Art has always been a part of Tyson Middle’s life. At a young age, his grandfather emphasized the importance of art. Middle grew up going to McIntosh Gallery and art store, where his love of sketching and pottery began to take shape.

Throughout high school, Middle’s fascination with pottery grew and his art teacher, Karen Dunbar, couldn’t help but notice his overwhelming potential. She pushed him to become masterful at every aspect of art. Dunbar believed in her student so much, she was the first featured artist upon his gallery opening.

Her influence was a large part of Middle’s philanthropic approach to who he is as an artist and member of the Billings community.

Where it began

It was Middle’s exposure to artistic elements outside of a studio setting that drew him to the path of graffiti art, also known as street art.

“I was an avid skateboarder – I think that is a part of what brought me into graffiti art. I would draw on the bottom of the board and the grip tape,” said Middle.

It seemed graffiti art and trains were always in the background of Middle’s teen years. He would take notice of the artwork splayed along the rail cars. It wasn’t until he moved from Wyoming to Billings when the pieces finally began to connect.

Middle received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Montana State University Billings. He did what many of us do: became employed fulltime, had a child and settled into adulthood – art had dissipated from his life.

“I knew something was missing. I started taking pictures of trains with graffiti art on them and I saw the potential to offer Billings more diversity in the art community,” said Middle.

On Feb. 1, 2013, Middle opened his first graffiti gallery and art supply shop, and Underground Culture Krew hit the ground running.

“We started doing live paintings, demos and attending a lot of events – we were all about pushing graffiti art into the community,” said Middle.

In May of 2015, the Krew began painting the iconic “art ally” located at the 3200 blocks of First and Second avenues north. For many locals, the ally and all of its colors, vivid images, messages of acceptance and constant creative evolution offered a piece of vitality that Billings had never seen.

The ally and other graffiti art walls became the backdrop for photoshoots and videography. It gave Billings an edge and revealed an artistic evolution expected in bigger cities.

“We had people tell us we wouldn’t last six months. We just celebrated six years. We may be small but we are still going,” said Middle.

Fighting the good fight

Undeniably, Middle has dealt with the negative connotations associated with graffiti art. He has had law enforcement called to every mural the Krew has painted. Unlike illegal graffiti tagging, Middle has permission or is asked to create the murals and is always ready with proper paperwork and contacts.

“We pump a lot of education out there. There is a right way and a wrong way when it comes to graffiti,” said Middle. “We have straight-up vandals in this town. That’s not what we do.”

Middle imports the finest spray paint from Barcelona, Australia and California to create high-quality murals.

“People immediately diminish spray cans as an art tool. But, they are always impressed when they look at a mural we have created – they can’t believe we made it with sprays cans.”

Giving back with graffiti

Word-of-mouth began to spread about Middle and Underground Culture Krew, and soon elementary schools became new canvases.

Travis Niemeyer, principal at Newman Elementary, asked Middle to paint a mural to represent the respected school houses, Isibindi, Reveur, Amistad – think Hogwarts only right here in Billings and magical in their own right. Middle jumped at the chance and soon, more schools asked for the Krew’s artwork on their walls including Ponderosa, Orchard and Beartooth.

Middle also began working with at-risk youths, inviting them to learn the art, hang out in the shop and have a place of belonging. In many ways, Middle finds himself as a mentor and big brother, taking some kids directly under his wing to help them find a better path and a sense of self-worth.

“Everyone wants to be heard. Graffiti art allows that to happen – everyone gets to tell their story,” Middle said.

Big things ahead

Middle has larger projects on the horizon. While downtown has some incredible murals including the “Toy Story” wall, located at 3225 1st Ave. N., representing suicide prevention, with addition artwork on the back of the building, there is more to be done. New buildings, businesses and west-end attractions are requesting graffiti art from Underground Culture Krew, recognizing the value in a colorful setting.

For larger cities and countries, graffiti art is a respected form of expression. It challenges landscapes unlike any other paint form. It turns ordinary subway tunnels, bridges and city walls into works of art. It tells stories in raw, unaffected form – exposed to and challenged by the elements, the art mirrors the artist.

For Middle, the work is a direct gateway to the humanities. It allows Billings to evolve into a giant gallery, a place for cultural growth and a chance to show the appeal in street art.

For more information, check out Underground Culture Krew on Facebook.

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Senior Editor for Special Sections

Senior Editor for Special Sections at The Billings Gazette.