A brief overview of several rotating graffiti art walls in the U.S.
Tacoma Graffiti Garages | Tacoma, Washington [2008-2013]
The City of Tacoma partnered with a private property owner to transform an open-air parking garage in downtown into a free space for graffiti. Paint was only permitted on Sundays only. This program was done in partnership with the City of Tacoma and its impact was tracked by the city. The city aimed to: 1) connect with artists who would not necessarily apply for a permit or grant and 2) provide a safe space for people to paint in public. In their research, the city found that graffiti in the immediate vicinity increased slightly, but the overall amount of graffiti found in the city reduced. The free wall in essence concentrated graffiti into a centralized space. The graffiti garages became a community gathering space, tourist attraction, and populate film and video shoot location. A few complaints were received early on, but pushback eventually subsided. Eventually in late 2013, the garage owner chose to stop allowing graffiti at the site citing safety and overuse as the cause for their decision.
Community Chalkboard | Charlottesville, Virginia [2007-Present]
The Community Chalkboard + Podium is an interactive, democratic, and uncensored monument to the first amendment, offering the public a venue to practice of the right to free expression. The chalkboard is 60’ by 7’ high, and made of slate. It is located directly in front of Charlottesville City Hall and is part of an area known as First Amendment Plaza. Due to the low barrier medium, a wide array of people interact with this wall on a daily basis. This project joins educators, artists, and designers with local youth to explore and interpret the places where they live. It acts as a public discussion board for a variety of discourse including political, social and global issues. It has received an Urban Excellence Silver Medal in the Bruner Award Program. The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression manages the wall, and the design came from Architects Peter O'Shea Wilson and Robert Winstead. Cleaning and maintenance is done mostly by volunteers who live or work nearby, and it is cleaned at least twice a week since it is so popular.
Free Expression Tunnel | Raleigh, North Carolina [1968-Present]
A long pedestrian tunnel under the railroad tracks at North Carolina State University has served as a public free wall since 1968, when it was first painted to celebrate returning veterans. Anyone is permitted to decorate the tunnel walls at any time. Campus clubs and organizations often paint the tunnel to promote events and graffiti artists use it as practice space. Since 2010 there has been an ongoing tradition of a weekly ‘freestyle cypher’ where local artists and students gather to freestyle, beat box, sign, play instruments, recite poetry and network. The tunnel has only had one documented issue come up, which occurred after President Obama was elected. Racist graffiti appeared with threats against Obama. The U.S. Secret Service quickly identified the four students responsible for the hate graffiti and the students were expelled.
Post Alley in Pike Place | Seattle, Washington [1993-Present]
Since 1907, this labyrinthine of angled streets and steep grades in downtown Seattle has maintained a distinctive physical and cultural character. One of the main points of interest of Pike Place, for both locals and visitors alike is Post Alley. This alley gets its name from the Seattle Post, which used to be located at the alley's southern end. Today, the narrow alley passage is famous for its gum and wheatpaste art wall. The gum tradition began in 1993 by patrons of a nearby theatre. It is unclear how long the wheatpaste art wall has existed, but it's past is likely intertwined with the historic tradition of pasted city notices and advertisements, especially considering this is a high-traffic corridor once occupied by a newsprint company. With both the gum and wheatpaste walls, the Pike Place Market management and the City of Seattle police take a “hands off” approach to these public interventions, allowing and even somewhat encouraging freedom of speech and expression in these spaces. Both have become a huge tourist-draw, attracting visitors to participate in this public intervention and snap photos. Over the years, the gum has spread quite a bit. So much so that local street artists have attempted to clean the gum off the wheatpaste side of the alley. The City of Seattle's sanitary department finally stepped in to help clean off some of the build-up in 2015. City crews undertook a multi-day process to completely clean the alley. Within hours of being clean the gum started to re-appear and artists from all over the Pacific Northwest descended upon the alley to reclaim one side of the alley for pasted paper art. For the foreseeable future, Post Alley is one of the United States most open and accessible spaces for public art and expression. No permits or scheduling is needed, just show up anytime of the day or night with a pack of gum or wheat paste and go to work
TUBS | Seattle, Washington [2007-2014]
For 7 years, the former 104-year old building known as TUBS sat vacant at the corner of 50th and Roosevelt in the University District, amidst a bustling urban neighborhood. In 2009, the building owner thought it's demise was near, so they invited graffiti artists to use the 12,000-square-foot space as a canvas for their art and expression in the meantime. The owner wanting to provide the community an "ephemeral and evolving" piece of curated street art. Over time, the space opened up even more to other artists, and it essentially became a free wall - a hot spot for Seattle graffiti. A year after the free wall began, the City had received over 900 graffiti complaints. But the building owner fought back, citing their private property rights and community appreciation for the art. By this point, TUBS had become a tourist destination and like many graffiti meccas, served as an urban backdrop for photographers and filmmakers. In response to the complaints, the City of Seattle said they're hands were tied and they had no power to force the owner to clean up their building. Seattle City Attorney Ed McKenna said, "Legally, we're in a difficult position. We can't force the owner to remove his graffiti, so we have pretty much have exhausted every remedy." The City of Seattle defines graffiti as "unauthorized markings." The difference with TUBS was that the building owner willingly allowed their building to become a "free wall," so the City of Seattle could not fine or penalize them for graffiti. The free wall at TUBS continued for 6 more years until 2014 when it was finally demolished to make way for a large condo building. The TUBS free wall was an important piece of Seattle's urban art history and unique when it comes to other cities in the U.S.
SODO Freewall | Seattle, Washington [2012-2013]
The owners of a warehouse building on Occidental Avenue across from the Starbucks Headquarters, in the SODO neighborhood of Seattle welcomed graffiti artists of all types to come create art on an over 100-foot wall that backs up to the train tracks. This was a non-formally managed project where artists have free reign, and the work changed often. Because the project was on private property and backs to an industrial area, there was minimal conflict with the larger community over the activity and content surrounding the project.
Olympia Free Wall | Olympia, Washington [2000-Present]
This free wall is located on the backside of the State Theater, in downtown Olympia. It is part of a network of urban alleyways. The walls near the free wall are marked with warning signs to not paint here and are buffed regularly to control spill-over graffiti.
HOPE Outdoor Gallery | Austin, Texas [2011-Present]
This ‘community paint park’ is located in downtown Austin, TX. This educational project is managed by the non-profit HOPE Events and was launched in 2011 with the help of street artist Shepard Fairey. The paint park provides artists, arts education classes, and community groups the opportunity to display large-scale art pieces driven by inspirational, positive and educational messaging. The park has broadened based on the response from local families, community members and the Austin Creative Class. It has become an inspirational outlet and creative destination for all that come to visit and is recognized as one of the Top 10 Artistic destinations in Texas. The park has provided many benefits to the community including job creation for local artists, connections to art commissions, a site for school classes and field trips, live art projects, dance videos, breakdancing and urban agriculture classes. The HOPE Outdoor Gallery is located on private property. Anyone over 18 years old who wants to paint must register beforehand by emailing the coordinators. An adult must accompany any youth wishing to paint or visit. When registering, artists are asked to ﬁll out a question form, provide proof of ID, submit a sketch or mock-up of the art intended, and sign a waiver in order to receive credentials. The park is only open for painting between 9am and 7pm daily, and no one is allowed to paint after dark. Painting passes are available for pick-up on Saturdays and Sundays during designated hours. Painters without proper credentials (a painting pass) are asked to leave and may be subject to arrest for trespassing. All participants must respect the existing art, be courteous to the neighborhood and dispose of all your trash. In January of 2018 it was announced that the HOPE Outdoor Gallery is relocating and expanding with the creation of a new six-acre project launching at Carson Creek Ranch in southeast Austin.
5Pointz | Long Island City, Queens, New York City [1993-2014]
Starting in 1993, developer Jerry Wolkoff gave permission to a group of graffiti artists to decorate his building to try and deter vandalism in the area. Over time, the building became covered in vibrant street art and the building was rented to artists as studio space. The space was managed as a rotating art wall and artists needed to arrange to paint ahead of time. It was a mecca for artists from all over the world to come and add to the murals. For over 20 years, the location was a tourist destination, and also helped Long Island City become the vibrant neighborhood it is now. The owner eventually tore down the building, and the site is now the subject of a federal court case filed by the artists who say the artwork itself was their property based on the Visual Artists Rights Act. (V.A.R.A). The photos below were taken in 2014 after the notorious buffing of 5Pointz by owner Jerry Wolkoff.
Special thanks to PSAA Intern Erika Galt for help researching and editing this article.