Students and Administration Talk Graffiti

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The issue of graffiti has captivated and frustrated members of the student body for the past two months. To address simmering tensions between students and the administration, Honor Council held an open forum on the place of graffiti on campus Wednesday afternoon. “The issue of graffiti has received a lot of attention recently,” said Alberta Bleck, an Honor Council member. Bleck added that Honor Council wanted to create a space for discussing the issue in the context of the Honor Principle and to propose solutions that could potentially ease campus tension and provide the school with a more sustainable graffiti policy. The need for the discussion emerged in light of the “graffiti war” that began early this semester in which students graffiti the gender-neutral GCC bathrooms and the administration has painted over it. The conversation was primarily concerned with Reed preserving a space for private and anonymous self-expression and how to best compromise with current administration policies and those who view graffiti as dishonorable or triggering. The first question came from a student inquiring about last year’s erasures in the SU lofts and the gender-neutral GCC bathrooms. Director of Facilities Operations Townsend Angell and Building Maintenance Manager Steve Yeadon of Facilities Services recounted the appearance of offensive graffiti in the SU and the Gray Campus Center last spring, saying that the erasures were covering “hate speech” and “anti-Semitic images.” Angell said that there remain graffiti-coated sections of campus that will not be subject to repainting, citing the KRRC office as an example. However, Angell added that the GCC bathrooms in particular are “not owned spaces by students,” despite what he called a common conception to the contrary. “We can paint a wall in a public space whenever we need to,” he said.
Corinne Bachaud, a junior, agreed in part with Angell’s statement, explaining that the art in the gender-neutral bathrooms was important to her during her first two years at Reed. “It was about poetry and self-expression,” said Bachaud, “but finger-painting the walls isn’t going to bring that space back.” Bachaud said that participation in the “graffiti war,” especially by freshmen who were not exposed to last year’s graffiti, “comes with a really big sense of entitlement.” Prompted by Honor Council facilitator Adrian Dannis’ question of why the graffiti was “so important” to the Reed community, one student responded that the different experiences, emotions, and interactions reflected in scrawls on the bathroom walls paired with the graffiti’s “vaguely counter-cultural spirit” seem “very Reed.” Flyers bearing the question “What do you think about graffiti on campus?” that Honor Council posted in various bathrooms around campus circulated the room as students articulated their feelings about campus graffiti. Another student argued that early tagging retaliations could have been laments about a loss of history, not necessarily anger at the administration. This quickly escalated into increasingly aggressive tags, which many students agreed compromises the safe atmosphere that the GCC bathrooms used to create. Bookstore Manager Ueli Stadler said that he was attending on behalf of five staff members who miss the graffiti that was painted over last spring. Stadler said he felt it is a “shame that we’ve lost the possibility” of having the space for graffiti. The bookstore staff posted an open letter in both gender-neutral bathrooms informing those who participate in the graffiti that the fumes from spray paint and paint-removal solvents filter through the air ducts and create an uncomfortable working environment. Irena Swanson, professor in the mathematics department, compared the graffiti to bumper stickers: She is either drawn to the sentiments and “drives up to get a better look” or wants to “put as much distance” in between herself and offensive or frightening material. On the subject of triggering wall art, Angell says that “there are people that don’t like graf- fiti, and in a public bathroom, those people win out.”
This led into a discussion on students self-policing potentially offensive tags. Facilities did not respond positively to the proposed reinstatement of the Ministry of Propaganda, a board that would take complaints about the ability of a student to delegate the responsibility of covering offensive graffiti. Attendees of the forum were made aware that there are students who believe graffiti to be dishonorable, and as such would feel extremely uncomfortable covering up triggering graffiti themselves. One proposed solution was to assign one lower GCC bathroom as graffiti-free and the other as open for the sort of expression that used to occupy the space. The students, staff, and faculty that supported this idea argued that it allows for those who could potentially be upset by graffiti to elect to not be exposed to such an environment. Several participants also advocated for increased communication between the administration and the students regarding the reason for the initial erasures. Although Yeadon maintained that changes in graffiti erasure policies are not sustainable for those who enforce them, students argued that the continual painting-over of tags is also not sus- tainable for the school. Many students were in favor of com- ing to a consensus on student norms for graffiti, possibly incorporating descriptions of the graffiti-approved spaces into Orientation packets and allowing it to be a permanent part of the discussion of Reed’s policies with the school’s outsiders.