SPRAYING INSPIRATION: Eagle Butte comes alive during annual graffiti festival

No matter your background or where you live, Red Can is an event for everyone
Lawst At Red Can 2022

Graffiti artist “Lawst,” from the Twin Cities, paints a mural with his graffiti name at the Waniyetu Wowapi Art Park in Eagle Butte. Lawst has been painting for 15 years (photo by Darsha Nelson, NewsCenter1)

EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. — The Cheyenne River Youth Project was founded in January 1988 with the goal of supporting Lakota youth and their families. From locations to programming, things have changed a lot over the last 34 years, but their mission remains the same.

As the years come and go, new traditions are born. 2022 marked the eighth year for the Red Can Graffiti Jam. It started in 2015 as a one-time-only event, but the community’s positive reaction — and the willingness of the artists to keep coming back — made it an immediate hit.

The four-day festival is the first of its kind in Indian country, and with each year, its reputation grows.

The award-winning event brings artists from across the country to Eagle Butte. They stay four days, spending the first two out in the community painting murals. Youth in the community join them before everyone returns to the Waniyetu Wowapi Art Park for the final two days of celebration.

Julie Garreau, the executive director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project, said, “What we’re doing is introducing Lakota culture and graffiti culture and bringing those two beautiful things together. We’re creating art, plain and simple. And we’re engaging kids with that; we’re uplifting the community.”

But the event wasn’t always popular with the locals. Garreau says at the beginning, the community was afraid their kids would only be learning how to vandalize. Once they saw Red Can’s success and the resulting beautification of their city, that sentiment changed.

Painting started with a wall here or there, but now their work is visible from one end of Eagle Butte to the other.

“People are calling and saying, ‘we’d like our garage painted this year,'” Garreau said. “Moreau-Grand Electric Cooperative offered their entire building for it to be [painted], so it’s one big canvas. [The] Cheyenne River Housing Authority, they’re like, ‘we would love to see a mural about Indian relay racers,’ so we’re doing that. It’s a community event; it’s community lifting community in the best possible way.”

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Young artists can paint whatever they want on the walls at the Waniyetu Wowapi Art Park during Red Can in Eagle Butte (photo courtesy Cheyenne River Youth Project)

The inspiration behind the gathering is Lakota culture. Everything CRYP does is done with and from the heart, Garreau says.

“Really what we’re trying to do is preserve the culture,” said Hena Manocha, an art therapist from Ohio on her second trip to Red Can. “In order to remember it, in order to honor it, this is the way you do it. You work with the kids; you help them remember so they can keep passing it on.”

The culture, Manocha says, is a beautiful one, but one that she says is “made to be forgotten” in this world. Garreau says it won’t be.

“I’m proud and I am a Lakota person. We are here and we are putting everything we know on walls and letting you know that we are here,” Garreau said. “Lakota people, we never went anywhere. That’s not going to happen.”

It’s a cultural melting pot; a chance to learn not only about art, but about each other.

“Every artist here is from a different affiliation of tribes, so it’s an easy way for all of us to come together and really learn about all the rest of them,” said CRYP Art Fellow Sierra Maynard.

One of this year’s artists was Lawst, a graffiti artist from Minnesota. It’s his second year at Red Can.

“I love how kids are so intrigued with spray paint and [have] never even used spray paint, or just like, love art, because art is just basically a healing method or a coping mechanism for certain people,” Lawst said.

Lawst allows his Potawatomi, Menominee, and Puerto Rican heritage to influence his art. Originally from Chicago, he’s been in the Twin Cities-area for a decade, and has been painting graffiti for 15 years. Back in Minnesota, he represents graffiti crews J4F (“Just for Family”) and TKO (“True Kings Only”).

“Everyone has their own ways of looking at graffiti…like a bad thing, a good thing…or it just brings happiness,” Lawst says. “I like to do a lot of different colors and transparency designs and overlapping and not have everything look the same.”

Traditional Lakota dancers also perform during Red Can. Take a look at some of the performances from day three:


Graffiti comes from the Italian word graffiare, which means “to scratch.”

This form of communication has a long history, going all the way back to writing on the walls in the ancient city of Pompeii. It’s evolved ever since, from the political and social murals of the IRA in Northern Ireland to open-source community projects like Los Angeles’ “Great Wall.”

Academics now study graffiti and other street art, which is often a reaction to current events.

Mural Painting At Red Can

A young artist paints a Red Can sign at the Waniyetu Wowapi Art Park in Eagle Butte (photo by Darsha Nelson, NewsCenter1)

Garreau echoed that statement, saying that Red Can exemplifies the respect that has grown for graffiti artists.

“Now when I look at trains rolling by, I think, ‘wow’! Either I know that person or it’s beautiful artwork,” Garreau said. “I just think we’ve opened our minds and we’ve brought these two movements together – these cultures together – and it just seems to be working well.”

Manocha says this creativity is like tapping into the subconscious, allowing people catharsis when words just aren’t enough.

Many at Red Can, like Lawst, say art is like their therapy.

“It’s a very good way for me to express myself, because talking and stuff is something I struggle with,” Maynard says. “It’s easy for me to do it on paper.”

Those expressions, from Lakota words to animals, names, and even abstract art, are uplifting, Garreau says. Seeing that art, the color, the beauty — it’s inspiring.

“When it comes to a community like this, to be able to look around and see these messages and to see the color and to be reminded of that all of this is worth something so much more…it’s just…it’s just beautiful,” Manocha said.

As this year’s Red Can Graffiti Jam ends, Cheyenne River keeps looking ahead. Everyone I talked to, from artists and board members to visitors, all had the same sentiment – no matter your background or where you live, Red Can is an event for everyone.

“This is a place that will always welcome you with open arms, because they know how important it is. Preserving the culture means other people experiencing it, too,” Manocha said.

The mission of the Cheyenne River Youth Project is to give Lakota youth and families access to the culturally relevant, enriching, and enduring opportunities needed to build stronger, healthier communities and a more vibrant future together.

Click here for more information on the Cheyenne River Youth Project.

Categories: ConnectCenter1-Culture and Art, Local News, South Dakota News