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“Truth to Power” Graffito Fake; Administration Reconsidering Graffiti Policy

Jorge Rodriguez contributed reporting

A piece of graffiti in the Gray Campus Center that claims to have been made by controversial artist Kara Walker is a forgery.

The graffiti appears to be a response to an ongoing conflict between students and administration over graffiti in GCC bathrooms. Unrelated to the forged Walker piece, Student Services has suspended erasure of graffiti as it reconsiders its approach to the issue.

The Walker forgery appeared in the middle of last week in the right-hand gender-neutral bathroom downstairs in the GCC after Walker made a campus visit.

The graffito featured a silhouette in Walker’s characteristic style, along with a message in all lower-case letters that read, “dear reedies, thank you for yr hospitality. continue speaking truth to power. love, kara.” Elsewhere in the bathroom were written messages that read, in the same black cursive lettering, “fighting idle battles might teach us how to fight,” and “I’m glad you weren’t afraid to get messy.”

However, Walker said via email, “I am afraid you will have to look within your own ranks for the vandal/plagiarist/activist. I am not in the habit of marking up bathroom stalls.”

Walker, who teaches fine arts in Columbia University’s graduate school, has drawn acclaim and criticism for her racially charged work, much of which creates room-sized tableaux of paper-cutout silhouettes. She recently had a show at Reed’s Cooley Gallery, and she visited campus last week.

The graffiti was accompanied by a letter from Reed’s Cooley Gallery addressed to Facilities Services asking that the graffiti not be painted over. Stephanie Snyder of the Cooley Gallery confirmed that she put up the sign as soon as she learned of the graffiti, before she knew it was a forgery. Even though it’s fake, she likes the graffiti nonetheless, she says.

“I’m confident that Kara Walker did not create the artwork,” Snyder says. “It doesn’t really ‘read’ like her hand, and she said (to my face) that she did not do the drawing. Regardless of the fact that the piece is an ‘homage,’ and not an original artwork, I appreciate it. The message is positive. It’s skillfully executed. It pleases me enormously that the exhibition, and Kara’s presence, found their way into the chthonic recesses of student life.”

The graffiti is apparently a response to an ongoing conflict in which students repeatedly graffitied the bathrooms’ walls and Facilities Services repeatedly painted over them in what Dean of Student Services Mike Brody called a “tit for tat.” However, the Walker forgery doesn’t appear to have had an impact on the conflict.

Steve Yeadon, maintenance manager at Facilities Services, says his policy is usually that “when graffiti occurs we paint it out.” But, he says, he was asked by Brody to cease temporarily until administration officials reach a decision on future policy regarding graffiti. The decision was made to stop painting over the walls before the appearance of the forged Walker piece.

“This is a ridiculous and unsustainable trajectory,” Brody said at a Senate meeting on Sept. 28. The current state of affairs has been “unacceptable,” he said. “We will do better than we are doing now.”

Campus graffiti artists agree. “Although I can understand (to some extent) concerns about graffiti and the like,” says a graffiti artist who paints under the name of SUSO!, who claims responsibility for some of the GCC graffiti, “it also seems really bizarre that people don’t want to participate in seeing/making this incredible art. Out in public is the best place for art, I think.”

“Sure, there are murals,” SUSO! went on, “but those have to be approved, and you could argue pretty easily that that’s just another form of censorship.

Another impact of the “tit for tat” is cost to the college. It costs about $200-300 to coat and paint walls, estimates Yeadon. Stall barriers are more expensive to erase; Yeadon estimates this runs $1000-1500.

3 Responses to ““Truth to Power” Graffito Fake; Administration Reconsidering Graffiti Policy”
  1. Jordan H. says:

    Whoever did this is the absolute coolest.

    • Ryan says:

      Really? I think impersonating another artist is kinda lame. It both assumes that Kara Walker would be cool with her name being used in this way (it doesn’t matter whether that assumption ends up being true in retrospect), and it seems to lack a certain aesthetic sense of creativity and courage.

  2. Jordan H. says:

    Those are all fair points. I think I was just blown away by how absolutely weird it is, like that this person actually took the time to make all the art and forge a letter and send it to Facilities Services.

    So yeah: morally iffy, even given the fact that Kara Walker seems fine with it, but– you have to admit– also kind of impressive. In the way that a cop can come to a crime scene and have a certain sense of respect for the audacity of the crime.

    By cool I meant “utterly bizarre” and “makes for a really good story.”

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