Return of offensive graffiti sparks campus conversation

By Ben Bartenstein

Some people view it as free expression in its purest form. Others describe it as disrespectful. Nonetheless, graffiti has been appearing on campus more frequently this fall. “It tends to happen more at the beginning of semesters, kind of an up-and-down cycle,” said Jim Hoppe, Dean of Students. “It’s almost as if the publicity seems to create more.” While administrators have said that graffiti is an ongoing problem, some have characterized the most recent onslaught of offensive language as particularly troublesome. “This is just straight, blatant, ugly hatred,” said Chris MacDonald-Dennis, Dean of Multicultural Life. Last year, graffiti found on campus included a lot of images. “I remember Jim and I saying, ‘This could be offensive. This could be homophobic, but I’m not quite sure.’ [This year] it is racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic. There is no question. They’re the basic slurs.” “I think the number of incidents is growing, and [the message] is angrier,” said Mike Hall, the Facilities Building Maintenance Manager. Terry Gorman, Director of Environmental Health, Safety, and Security, said that approximately 10 cases of hateful graffiti have been reported out of about 24 overall incidents this semester. The Daily Piper noted the most recent hateful graffiti on September 26. Lack of information so far has made it difficult to identify a culprit. “There’s an assumption that it’s somebody from campus, but we just don’t know,” said Hoppe. “Thousands of people walk through every day.” Despite its prevalence on campus, the graffiti problems have not received as much campus-wide attention as MacDonald-Dennis would like. Only four staff members and one student attended a recent forum on the issue in Weyerhaeuser Chapel. “I wondered if because [the graffiti] was not in people’s face, it [didn’t] seem to impact people in a daily way,” said MacDonald-Dennis. “I wonder if that’s why there wasn’t more student participation.” Despite the forum’s lackluster turnout, Hoppe said he has been pleased by the dozen or so students who have discussed the graffiti issue with him privately. “It seems highly likely that someone on campus knows something about this, and it’s time for them to come forward,” he said. Both Hoppe and MacDonald-Dennis agreed that these incidents serve as a wake-up call for the “Mac bubble.” “We’re part of the real world,” Hoppe said. “Things like this happen all over the place, and we’re not immune.” “People have all the -isms here,” MacDonald-Dennis said. “That doesn’t mean we’re bad. It just means we live in an oppressive society, just like everyone else.” Macalester students have their own distinct views on what can be defined as good and bad graffiti. “Art is such a difficult question because of how subjective it is,” said Alex Dolabi ’16. “I love street art. It’s one of my favorite forms of art. For me, my name is the most artsy thing that I draw because I’m not an artist.” Dongjun Kim ’15, on the other hand, views people who graffiti their names as selfish. “There are a lot of Korean tourists who write stuff on famous tourist places like the Eiffel Tower,” he said. “These people write their names just to celebrate themselves. Korean people generally hate it that people do that because it’s destroying a certain value.” Hall dismissed the idea of good graffiti. “I think the money, the time, and the energy take away from more positive things that could be done,” he said. “Some years, I go way over budget. I think I put in $10,000 a year for graffiti clean up. I spent $6,000 on just one incident.” The graffiti has also been seen as demeaning to those who have to clean it up. “If you take a lot of pride in what you do, and you see actions going the other way, it can be frustrating,” Hall said. “I see some pretty interesting things, but if a student wants to make a statement that strongly that he’s gonna vandalize, why don’t they buy a piece of plywood and paint that? Why don’t they use their money?” Distinguishing between personal expression and hate speech can be difficult, however. Dolabi offered a simple guideline: “If your name was on it, would you be okay with it?” “Racist words and sexist words are definitely a no-no,” said Kim. Dolabi insisted that he found no word of graffiti personally offensive. “I’m invincible,” he said. “But just because I’m a little bit more thick-skinned doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be respectful to others who are sensitive.” While Hall made it clear that hateful graffiti is not tolerated, he did say that Facilities Services has allowed respectful graffiti at the Doty Grate since 2004, after deciding it was too costly to remove. Hoppe called it a “free expression zone.” “The college tries hard not to get in the position of censoring,” he said. Dolabi expressed the need for more graffiti venues on campus as a way of promoting good graffiti and potentially discouraging bad graffiti. “I’d like a wall in Janet Wallace where kids can go up and constantly put up graffiti with no penalty, and you can go over other peoples’ so it can just build and build and build,” he said. “I don’t know where else there really is room for it.” Kim proposed chalk as an alternative to graffiti because it is simple and easily available at the Student Organization Resource Center. “I did that for a Bodacious performance last year, and it was actually really fun,” he said. “…I didn’t feel like I was ruining this place but rather I was feeling like it would be a really effective way to make an announcement to people.” Hall said he could handle chalk. “It is easily cleaned off,” he said. “Of the two mediums, of all the mediums, I guess I could support chalk…on sidewalks.” Macalester’s building maintenance crew has its own method for solving the graffiti problem. Hall said it is difficult to stop all graffiti beforehand, so he focuses on removing their material as quickly as possible. “Typically, I call a painting contractor, and they’ll either use a graffiti remover to clean it up or paint over it if it’s a painted surface,” he said.“Now, we have put graffiti blocker on some of the buildings. It’s like a clear film and you just use soap and water to clean the graffiti off…if it works properly.” MacDonald-Dennis said that he believes solving the graffiti issue requires the action and collaboration of the entire Mac community. Gorman agreed. “We’re an open community,” Gorman said. “People can come and talk about it.” Hall said that he did not associate graffiti with Macalester. “When I hear the term, I think of railroad yards,” he said. “I don’t think that’s anyone’s vision for Macalester.” Hoppe emphasized the importance of students taking action. “Everyone here has some power to make a difference, and part of that is saying something if you see something going on,” said Hoppe. “Don’t underestimate the power of your own voice.” “I think that sometimes we get so busy that we’re just like, ‘I’m thinking of me,’” said MacDonald-Dennis. “People see things where they are like, ‘I could have made a difference.’” MacDonald-Dennis said he is confident in the student body. “I think the difference here, what I love, is that Mac students will want to make a difference and say, ‘Not on our campus,’” he said. “They will say, ‘This is not acceptable here.’” refresh –>