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Graffiti wall offers avenue for expression
By Melody Sands

Impassioned pleas to end the Vietnam War, heartfelt sentiments of love, even marriage proposals have emblazoned the cement block wall that sweeps around the west end of Mulberry Street near the Richland Avenue bridge. Student muralists announce new Greek pledges, invite the public to movies and sports events and advocate diversity, gay rights and recycling in 15-foot letters that run the length of the 40-foot graffiti wall.

Landon Nordeman, MSVC ’02
Ocean Eiler, BSC ’01, spreads the word about a campus recycling contest on the graffiti wall.

Sororities and fraternities tout painting projects as a worthwhile bonding experience. Late at night under the cover of darkness, serving on a bristle brigade seems to offer the chance to get away with something you shouldn’t. But actually, the University is a good sport about the hundreds of new messages that appear on the wall, as if by magic, overnight. There are no written rules but instead an unspoken understanding that common sense is expected: Don’t paint the sidewalk or the bridge railings. And don’t track paint into campus buildings.

So at a time when cities elsewhere are spending thousands on graffiti-resistant paint or cleanup equipment and crews, the University embraces such creative expression — but only on the wall. And although campus police occasionally have to remind would-be Jackson Pollocks where their modern art belongs, there is no record of anyone being arrested for excessive expression in unauthorized locations near the wall.

When Super Hall was torn down from the adjacent lot in 1976, the retaining wall was left in place and has been used as a billboard and creative canvas ever since. Earlier, though, anti-war sentiments painted during the late ’60s likely represent the first use of the wall for political declarations.

A new version of the wall is part of the design of nearby Bentley Hall, which is undergoing a renovation and expansion project set for completion in 2002. In the meantime, the wall has been replaced by a plywood imposter that can be used by passionate painters. (For a look at the wall coming down, check the Web at www.athensi.com.)

“It will be in a similar position, but we’ll make it a little nicer,” says John Kotowski, assistant vice president for facilities planning.

Landon Nordeman
Ocean Eiler uses up to 40 cans of spray paint for a typical graffiti piece.

That may seem like a lot of trouble for a graffiti wall, but Kotowski thinks it’s a sensible approach.

“We have a philosophy that if we don’t replace the wall, graffiti will happen elsewhere,” he says. “Now it’s contained and manageable.”

But control isn’t the only factor.

“The wall is a unique part of the OU culture. It’s so intertwined in the recent past of the University,” Kotowski notes. “It’s been rare that things are put on the wall that are offensive. I’ve seen people thanked, events promoted, anniversaries celebrated and someone proposing. The work is creative and talented a lot of times.”

It takes about two gallons of paint to cover the last group’s work and another two to add a new message, estimates Dennis Rapp, owner of a local paint store. All-night campouts to claim the wall and keep it from being painted over by another group become minisocials that connect paint patrols. Unwritten rules of courtesy mean a message usually gets two to three good days of play. Interestingly, there’s never been a serious battle over the right to propagandize, advertise or stylize on a mural space that even Michelangelo might have appreciated.

Painter Ocean Eiler, BSC ’01, calls the graffiti wall “a really positive outlet.” He’s an expressive artist, but his exuberance around campus landed him a misdemeanor conviction in Municipal Court. He is working off his sentence by providing 300 hours of community service to Campus Recycling. Determined to use Eiler’s talents to the fullest, Refuse and Recycling Manager Ed Newman, BS ’81, had his “volunteer” paint a message on the wall to promote a recycling contest.

When he’s painting for pleasure, Eiler uses about 40 cans of spray paint to create a free-form piece featuring typography and random names. He acknowledges that using the wall as a canvas can turn into an artistic battle if someone paints a bigger or better piece over his work. Recently, Eiler says he was trumped by the creator of a simple, yet beautiful, three-color drawing.

“I just left a sticky note beside it that said, ‘You win.’”

Melody Sands, MSJ ’98, is a freelance writer living in Athens.


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