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
Nordeman, MSVC 02
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 shouldnt.
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: Dont paint the sidewalk or
the bridge railings. And dont 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 In the meantime, the wall has been replaced
by a plywood imposter that can be used by passionate painters.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 well make it a
little nicer, says John Kotowski, assistant vice president
for facilities planning.
Eiler uses up to 40 cans of spray paint for a typical graffiti
That may seem like a
lot of trouble for a graffiti wall, but Kotowski thinks its
a sensible approach.
We have a philosophy that if we dont replace the wall,
graffiti will happen elsewhere, he says. Now its
contained and manageable.
But control isnt the only factor.
The wall is a unique part of the OU culture. Its so
intertwined in the recent past of the University, Kotowski
notes. Its been rare that things are put on the wall
that are offensive. Ive 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 groups
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, theres
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.
Hes 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 Eilers 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 hes 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.