In her first novel, "Tagged," author Diane Mullen examines how graffiti offers hope to a teenage boy growing up in a tough part of Minneapolis.
For Mullen, graffiti can be both beautiful and harmful. She reached that conclusion at the Walker Art Center, where she works as a gallery guard.
Museum guards, Mullen said, have a special relationship with the pictures on the walls.
"We spend more time with the art almost than the artists do," she said recently in one of the galleries. "I mean, we are with the art all the time."
Mullen once worked in advertising and made films for Nike and Best Buy. She began working on "Tagged" while completing an MFA in writing for children and young adults at Hamline University. She became a part-time guard two years ago while writing her novel.
The book centers on Liam, a 14-year-old boy from the inner city.
"[He] comes from a large Irish Catholic family, has seen a lot, endured a lot in his rather short life," she said. "You know, violence and poverty and a lot of things that come along with that."
Liam also is smart and a gifted baseball player. But he feels adrift and finds solace only in the big black marker hidden in his backpack.
A tagger, Liam scribbles on neighborhood walls before quickly moving on.
"It's a way for him to sort of make his mark in the world, to be heard, to be seen, without having necessarily to speak," Mullen said. "He's not a kind who talks a lot. He thinks very deeply and a lot, but he doesn't express it verbally."
Liam's tags catch the eye of his older brother, Kieran, who runs with a local gang. He gives Liam a can of spray paint and bullies him into spraying a gang tag over another left by a rival gang — a grave insult.
After members of the other gang spot Liam, they threaten him at gunpoint. He narrowly escapes. But when his mother sends him away for the summer to a small town on the shores of Lake Michigan to keep him from following in his big brother's footsteps, Liam is infuriated.
In Michigan, Liam stays with an artist friend and begins learning about art while digging through the books in her library. But he also tangles with the local police when he tags a building.
When Mullen began working at the Walker Art Center, she didn't know that certain pieces she saw daily would become part of Liam's story.
While walking through the galleries, she was inspired by "Church of the Minorites II," a 1926 cubist painting by Lyonel Feininger.
"[It] is just so layered and filled with, you know, not only shadows and angles but I think just a lot of emotions, at least to me," she said. "I also like it because I think it would be a painting that Liam would be drawn to."
In "Tagged," Liam absorbs pieces by Picasso, Hopper and Oldenburg — all works that Mullen has watched over in the galleries.
Pictures played another important part in Mullen's writing as she wrote about Liam. Images culled from magazines prompted her to craft her narrative about Liam and the other characters.
"I had to find literally pictures of every person in his family," she said. "I had to visualize his world."
Mullen wrote the book in very short chapters, some only a paragraph long, all from Liam's point of view. A fan of brevity, the author describes them as vignettes that she was able to easily move as she built the story.
"How do I want to say this gently?" she asked aloud. "I have read a number of books, in my opinion only, that go on and on and on and on and on and I think, 'Gosh, you could have said that in like three sentences.'"
Mullen also researched graffiti art, trying to understand the differences between a tag, a gang sign and a piece — a legitimate work of art. She even tried a little tagging herself, spray-painting a symbol on her own trash can — much to the horror of her young daughter, who burst into tears when she saw it.
"She said, 'Oh! That's great, now you're going to go to jail," Mullen recalled. "And I said, 'No it's for research Maggie; I had to do it!'"
Mullen also wrestled with the debate over whether graffiti is art or vandalism. She came down squarely in the middle, and describes street art as captivating and illegal property damage.
Still, Mullen admits she is taken with graffiti culture. She's working on a second master's degree and is considering a thesis on street artists as public intellectuals.
"Tagged," is aimed at youngsters who feel disconnected from others, as if they don't quite fit in.
"It's a way to encourage them to find whatever it is that they are passionate about," Mullen said. "Even if it might not be accepted by others, be persistent and don't give up on it."