Tyson Middle paints on the side of a metal building owned by a downtown business on June 10. The business had struggled with vandalism and commissioned Middle’s work. Credit: Jessica Jane Hart / MTFP

On June 10, Tyson Middle was finishing the black outline on his tag, “SIRUS,” when a Billings police officer arrived at the scene. Middle lowered his black paint spray can and stepped back to greet the officer, who was dispatched when law enforcement received a complaint. After some discussion, Middle was able to explain that he was not a vandal needing to be arrested but rather working on a commissioned graffiti mural for a downtown business.

The business — Wicked Diesel Auto Specialists — on First Avenue South in Billings has been struggling with vandalism and taggers marking a metal building located in the alley. In September of 2022, the city’s code enforcement department notified business owner Ervin Mettler that he would need to cover the recent graffiti tag, or they would do it for him. Either way, Mettler would be responsible for the costs of removal, and if he didn’t comply, he could be fined up to $500 and sentenced to up to six months in jail, per a city ordinance. So, he called Middle.

Middle is the most public graffiti artist in the city and has works of art from the west end to downtown. He has spray-painted the Shiloh Road pedestrian tunnel, created elaborate murals in the downtown skate park, and has worked with many private businesses who offer up “sanctioned walls” for Middle and other artists to paint. 

Middle, the most public graffiti artist in the city, calls himself “the name and face to graffiti in Billings.” Credit: Jessica Jane Hart / MTFP

“I am the name and face to graffiti in Billings,” he said. “It’s a fine line to walk sometimes.” 

Middle operates Underground Culture Krew, a graffiti supply store and community art collective in Billings. This is his 10th year in business, and he’s dealt with cops and code enforcement plenty of times, even though he operates on the legal side of graffiti. 

“Graffiti, at the end of the day, is paint on a wall,” Middle said. “There are rules to follow, and some choose not to. There is a difference between a street artist and a vandal. A bomber, a tagger — there are all different kinds.”

The struggle with illegal graffiti is an old story in Billings, one the ebbs and flows with weather, active taggers and the list of city priorities. 

“It’s a public-safety issue because graffiti encourages crime,” said Tina Hoeger, the city’s code enforcement division manager. “If you don’t take care of your property, it encourages negative behavior. It’s just one more piece of that puzzle to combat the greater issue of health and safety in the city.”

Joe Stout, Billings Business Improvement District (BID) director, sees graffiti kick up every spring and die off in winter. The BID helps keep the 18-block downtown district clean with the “Purple People” street team that does everything from plowing snow to hanging and watering flower baskets — and the removal of graffiti — as part of the Downtown Billings Alliance’s services for downtown businesses.

“The pop-culture idea of a graffiti artist is someone who is spraying walls in the lull between drug deals, and I don’t think that is the case,” Stout said. “I think very often it’s a bored kid trying to burn off energy.”

Stout has seen it all — tiny tags scrolled on stickers and slapped on poles, taggers spraying their names on block after block of building walls, graffiti rolling through town on rail cars, elaborate murals that pop up overnight in hard-to-reach spaces. 

Middle talks with a Billings police officer who responded to a vandalism complaint on June 10. Credit: Jessica Jane Hart / MTFP

“I have had to cover up some nicely done pieces that were well-planned out,” Stout said. “There is a possibility that this drive is so strong that they keep going back.”

Stout was among the first people in Billings to receive the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) designation from the National Institute of Crime Prevention. The training teaches individuals how to examine areas of a city and suggest or implement environmental design changes to reduce crime, influence human behavior and improve quality of life. 

“CPTED is a preventive measure,” Stout explained. “It’s proactive, not reactive.” Adding lighting to outside spaces, enhancing areas with public art and murals, and having employee workspaces facing out windows to provide natural surveillance are all part of this strategy. 

“If you can’t change the environment, you change the social nature of the area and bring safe activity to an unsafe area,” Stout said. “It’s a positive activity generator that includes natural surveillance and community ownership. That is the whole idea behind public art.”


After a $7.1 million public safety mill levy passed in 2021, Billings has ramped up its code enforcement department, engaging more police and community service officers to identify and prosecute illegal graffiti artists. The public is asked to help support these efforts by calling authorities and making a complaint when they see vandalism, and business owners who have been tagged are asked to report the graffiti. With additional resources from the mill levy, law enforcement is now building case files to help tie graffiti to individuals. 

“These are difficult cases because in general it is not common to catch someone tagging a property, and by the nature of using a tag name it is difficult to determine an identity,” said Matt Lennick, administrative lieutenant with the Billings Police Department. “Even if an identity is established, then an officer has to be able to go back and provide evidence that the person in question is responsible. This can take hours and hours of digging into social media accounts, search warrants and statements. It comes down to a resources game.”

Lennick explained that graffiti is a crime of opportunity. “Graffiti holds no meaning to the community, or is a subject matter that is generally offensive to the public,” Lennick said. “If more graffiti artists spent the time to work with property owners and create pieces that were generally tasteful and a positive influence on the community, then we as a department would get less complaints about the paintings and we would probably see some pretty nice stuff around town.”  

Other options for preventing graffiti can be costly, such as applying a topcoat to surfaces that prevents other paints from sticking. Local hardware stores offer paint at a discounted price to business owners and residents who are covering up graffiti, but currently there are no public programs to help mitigate the costs. 

“I have seen suspects from their early teens and well into adulthood,” Lennick said. “Some of it is just people being bored or destructive, but if you get into the culture of graffiti it is generally more than that. They depict themselves as artists and get a thrill from seeing their tag gain attention.”


Middle was born in 1985 in Greybull, Wyo. Graffiti was imported into town on the railroad, where his best friend’s parents worked. 

“We were always by the trains and constantly seeing graffiti and images and color,” Middle said. “I was intrigued by it. Who is doing this? It was totally foreign to me, especially in rural Wyoming.”

Middle operates Underground Culture Krew, a graffiti supply store and community art collective in Billings. Jessica Jane Hart / MTFP

Middle moved to Billings in his 20s. Graffiti called to him, and he knew it called to others, so in 2013 he started a business selling spray paint and other supplies for artists. 

“It’s the adrenaline. It’s the addiction. It’s the fear. It’s the pulse. It’s the smell, the taste. It’s everything,” he said. “You just got to drop cap and go.”

It didn’t take long for Middle to amass a following and a crew of painters. They led the effort to get places for people to paint where graffiti was accepted and allowed. 

“We are not the first ones to paint murals in Billings, but we just did it a little differently, and it opened up some avenues for other people to get up murals,” Middle said. “All of a sudden we were painting and booming.”

Middle’s murals carry familiar characters from his childhood. Ghostbusters, Toy Story characters, the family from Bob’s Burgers, Batman, and even the Beastie Boys are sprayed on walls around the city. These characters speak to younger artists and tend to be easier to spray paint because they are rounded and cartoon-like, Middle said.

Some of these murals have been called a public nuisance by business owners or residents who have taken offense to the artwork and complained. Enough complaints can add up to a citation and removal, and the Billings City Council retains the right to deem any public art a public nuisance. 

Middle steps back to view his work on the side of a metal building in an alley off of First Avenue South in Billings on June 10. Jessica Jane Hart / MTFP

“If we get a complaint, we will start the process,” said Hoeger with the city’s code enforcement division. “Art is art, but we do have to be respectful.”

Asking permission does change the essence of graffiti, Middle said. “At the heart of graffiti, it is true bombing and illegal tagging under the cover of darkness, hopping fences. If you ask permission, that is all gone. There isn’t as much adrenaline, but it does give access and availability for someone who doesn’t want to risk breaking the law. It’s a personal preference.”

Middle works with other taggers to encourage commissions and expression within sanctioned spaces. 

“For some of these kids, they have a lot of talent. I try to get these kids off the streets, ask them to contact me and we can go out and paint,” he said. 

“There is a difference between a vandal and a bored kid who found a spray paint in his dad’s garage,” Middle said. “A vandal is going to go destroy property, write his name on everything he sees and have fun wrecking. I think there are a lot of bored kids running around trying to express themselves and get attention. These kids just want to be seen and heard and recognized.”

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Anna Paige is a Montana-based arts journalist and co-host of "Resounds: Arts and Culture on the High Plains" on Yellowstone Public Radio. She's worked in the newspaper and publishing industry since 2004, most recently for the Billings Gazette as an arts and entertainment journalist. She is also the co-founder of Young Poets, a nonprofit teaching poetry in regional elementary schools and winner of the 2021 Library of Congress Award for Literacy.