Tyler Read: Artist and Community Builder | New
Tyler Read’s art career began when he was arrested in high school for graffiti in Seattle. He continued to Art Alley in Rapid City and returned to work for the Rapid City Police Department – but not as an officer.
“My manager told me, ‘You’re going to take an art class to learn what real art is.’ Lo and behold, I was pretty good at it,” Read said.
During his senior year, one of Read’s professors encouraged him to apply to art school in Seattle. He said he initially opposed the idea because he still had about 100 hours of community service to complete, and any incomplete hours would turn into a jail sentence as soon as he would be 18 years old. The teacher said he would sign off Read’s hours in art. the school is working on its future as a community service.
“It worked. I went to school,” Read said. “I ended up giving up after a year and started handicrafts in Michigan, lots of different things. I kind of put art aside until I moved here (in Rapid City) in 2004, and got a job welding cattle gates near the railroad tracks.
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During this work, graffiti on the carriages brought Read back into the art world.
“The train was 50 feet away, so I would weld, look up and see the trains go by. And finally, I couldn’t walk away from it anymore,” he said. “But I quickly moved on to legal work.”
Read became involved with Art Alley first as an artist and then later as Community Engagement Coordinator for the Rapid City Arts Council from 2012-2019. Art Alley is located between Sixth and Seventh Streets , and Main and Saint Joseph in downtown Rapid City. It started informally in 2003. After moving to Rapid City, Read began painting in Art Alley. In 2005 he sought to change part of the narrative around letter-based graffiti.
“When we started there, they didn’t allow letter-based graffiti, then we figured out how to make it an asset to the driveway. We added images of well-known iconic characters, and then I added graffiti,” Read said.
After various complaints from some business owners, the city passed an ordinance in 2016 establishing the Rapid City Arts Council as a facilitator for licensing artists who wish to paint in Art Alley.
“The owners of the building had a really long list of bad things happening, so we worked with them and the police department at the time and the city to develop a system, and I caught a lot of criticism for that,” Read said. “If we didn’t put a permanent system in place, they were going to shut it down.”
The experience led to some frustration on Read’s part, and he began to paint less in Art Alley.
“In the end, it really bored me: the experience of having to fight against leadership instead of defending it. It just put a bad taste in my mouth and I painted a lot less” , he said, “I see some great things happening there right now. I just wanted to see someone come up behind and take ownership of it because for years it was in bad shape, it broke my heart to see all of this.”
From 2017 to 2019, while working for the Rapid City Arts Council, Read was also a Fellow of the Bush Foundation. The scholarships are designed to develop leadership skills. During this time, Read traveled with his wife, Jenny, to graffiti festivals in England, Spain, and the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. He was also able to buy a screen printing studio for the Dahl Arts Center to help Art Alley artists turn their art into prints they could sell.
After his scholarship, Read worked with the Institute of Indigenous American Legacy (I. Am. Legacy), a nonprofit founded by former gang member Erik Bringswhite. I am. Legacy provides services to Indigenous people who have been incarcerated or are involved in the justice system and their families.
“It’s for everyone, but they’re using the Lakota-based culture as a kind of backbone. I worked for them for about six months in the beginning,” Read said.
Read’s wife, Jenny, is Lakota, as are their children, and Read, who is Puerto Rican and white, is passionate about building relationships with the Black Hills Native American community.
“It kind of started with meeting my wife and then I wanted my daughters to have a good sense of identity. By living here and being someone who tries to help, you get to know the community. And pretty much all of my mentors, my close friends, my family, everyone around me is Lakota. It’s very important to me to respect that culture and participate in a respectful way,” he said.
Read carried that mentality with him to the Cheyenne River Reservation where he worked as Artistic Director for the Cheyenne River Youth Project from 2019 to 2020. After the pandemic hit, Read decided it was time to find work in Rapid City. He had been driving back and forth to Bear Butte for work, and he decided he needed to be with his family more.
At that time, the Rapid City Police Department was looking for a Community Engagement Specialist. The decision to apply was not made by Read.
“My wife sent it to me on Facebook. I’m like, ‘Are you crazy? I will not work for the police.’ It was during the George Floyd protests,” he said.
“Jenny was like, ‘Think about this. Think about your skills. You want to be a bridge builder. You want to be someone who helps the community heal. Where better can you do that now than with the Department of police? I thought, okay. Challenge accepted.”
Read to begin work at Knollwood Townhouses RCPD substation in September 2020. Knollwood Townhouses is known to police as one of the ‘Big Three’. The big three refer to the high crime area of Maplewood Townhouses, Knollwood Heights Apartments and Knollwood Townhouses. is not a police officer, so his role is not to enforce the law, but to help support the community where he can.
The substation looks nothing like a police station. It’s a room with a small kitchen, bathroom, video games, pantry, and art supplies. During Read’s interview at his office on the corner, neighborhood kids played games and socialized with their friends.
Because of Read’s previous work with youth — he partnered with Pennington County Juvenile Diversion on a mural-making program for at-risk youth — he was able to connect with neighborhood kids.
“What I did to introduce myself to the community was I went out and wrapped saran around some of the monkey bars. I made a big temporary wall, then I started painting, and my mom made me four dozen cupcakes,” Read said. “I see little eyeballs staring at me. They elected a kid to come. From there, it’s history. Now it’s their office.
Read faced suspicion from the neighborhood — and still does sometimes — because he works for the police department, but he said his focus is on building community.
“The goal is to empower the community. The answer, in my opinion, to reducing crime is to have a community that when someone is having a massage outside and there are a bunch of kids watching, not everyone is seated on his front step watching him and taking a video,” Read said. “They’re bringing the kids in. It’s not that apathy to see violence happen in front of children. The community must feel that they have enough power over this place.
Read works full time at the substation. He is currently planning a mural for children in the community to paint. He holds bake sales called “Hood Cakes” where kids sell baked goods to buy video games or items for community members in need.
After a bake sale, the neighborhood kids decided to spend the money on plastic bulbs because glass bulbs were missing. Glass bulbs can be used as pipes for certain drugs.
Although Read no longer paints as much as before, her works inform her involvement in the community. He said what drew him to graffiti was the lack of community in his youthful life and the desire to have a voice, something he tries to give to the community he works in.
“I think we need to reconnect before it’s too late, so if we build a sense of community, we’ll take care of each other,” he said. “We’re going to get a more grounded idea of what’s right and wrong in general, and do the right thing.”
— Contact Shalom Baer Gee at [email protected] —