02/28/2012 04:51 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2012

Unconventional Canvas Stirs Up Controversy

As an anonymous artist continues to showcase his stenciled spray painted designs across the UConn campus, students and faculty are left debating where they draw the fine line between vandalism and art.

Curbs, columns and concrete walls across campus have become the canvas of choice for this anonymous artist, and many of these surfaces have donned his or her seemingly benign works. The back entrance to North Dining Hall, the curb outside Beach Hall, and a generator behind Monteith are just a few of the more than seven locations that this artist has marked. With the eye catching color and architectural placement typical of urban graffiti, and the clean lines and meticulous detail more characteristic of mainstream art forms, these works are walking the tightrope between the categories of "art" and 'vandalism."

With the commencement of removal efforts, most people in the UConn community have an opinion. The artistic value of the pieces seems to weigh most heavily on the opinions of students.

"It's definitely a lot more interesting than a blank wall," said Julian Neri, a 2nd-semester engineering major.

Several students admitted to having walked an atypical path to a normal destination, or having made a special trip altogether, solely for the purpose of spotting a newly discovered design. A female student observing a life-sized cat painted outside the North Dining Hall was overheard comparing her search for the pieces to an Easter egg hunt.

The eager-eyed student body is not, however, ignoring the illegality of the pieces.

"I've seen graffiti art on bulletin boards and in the art buildings, and that's cool, but to see it done randomly all over campus like that is not," said Haley Barber, a 6th-semester communication disorders major.

While some students, like Barber, are swayed more by the questionable legality than the aesthetics, there are many more who are simply caught in the middle of the debate.

"Personally, they don't bother me at all. But you can't just go out and do that to a building. It's illegal, " said Kyle Ambrose, a 2nd-semester mechanical engineering major. "I don't know. It's not really graffiti; it's not just art. I guess it's a little bit of both."

Students aren't the only ones torn. David Lotreck, manager of Facilities Operations, Buildings, Grounds and Elevators, is no different. Lotreck explained that, despite his personal appreciation for the time and skill that must go into the pieces, his primary concern at this time of year is cleaning and beautifying the campus in preparation for open house. Recruitment is a major business for colleges, and aesthetics are important when thousands of prospective students and their families will soon be touring and judging the campus.

"Some people might not call this graffiti. Some might call it art. I understand that," Lotreck said in an interview at his LeDoyt Road office. "But it's not my job to call it anything. It's my job to maintain a clean campus."

Facilities Operations' plan set to remove the pieces has elicited mixed reactions within the student body. Those students who expressed cognizance of their inappropriate placement, as Barber did, were relatively understanding of their removal.

"I absolutely understand why they'd want to remove it," Barber said. "They have an image to portray, not to just to people who may be enrolling, but people who are enrolled."

There were some students, however, who were completely opposed to the removal plan. Many felt it was a muffling of student expression or of the arts in general, and argued that the arts are largely unappreciated and misunderstood. They said the locations of the pieces is not public enough to earn the urgent removal they received and felt that the immediate removal was "more of a message, or a display of power than anything else."

Some students, like 2nd-semester psychology major Omi Batan, took the removal somewhat personally. He was not alone when he asserted that this campus "really belongs to the students."
"In paying to go here," he said, "we earn the right to make it our own."

Lotreck cites this sense of student body ownership as a major contributing factor to the problem of graffiti.

"There is a difference between pride and ownership," he said. "None of us owns this place. This is state of Connecticut property. This building, this desk, everything."

A clean campus, Lotreck says, should be important to current students as well as incoming students, especially since it is tuition and tax money that, in part, has to fund these removal projects. Lotreck estimates that repairing the damages by this round of graffiti will cost upward of $200.

The cost of removal, however, is not the biggest problem Facilities Operation faces with regard to graffiti. The damages that can be done by the chemical solvents and power washing required to remove the paint can be nearly as unsightly as the graffiti itself. Solvents can damage a glazed surface, like the walls of the MSB stairwell that had be cleaned, and power washing can do worse. Lotreck recounted the story of a friend who attempted to power wash a profanity from a monastery wall and instead, "with one little miscalculation of the tip size, he ends up etching the expletive into the wall permanently."

In addition to causing removal damages, graffiti that requires diverting workers to the various sites for removal slows down progress on other important projects.

"I really think we need to have more venues for the kids to express themselves," Lotreck said. "I'm not against the arts or expression, not at all."

He says that he has looked into the possibility of special temporary display kiosks for students to showcase their art, outside of the few already offered. When asked how the Building and Grounds Committee would react to a legitimate and well-monitored organization that specialized in grounds beautification in specific and approved areas, Lotreck remarked, "Now that could work."

Alternative programs such as these not only offer students more avenues for self-expression, but they are likely to reduce misplaced graffiti. Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., has successfully employed such a project, aptly titled The Graffiti Wall.

"The idea is that, if we have a place that we can freely spray paint and draw and mark up, there's no reason for us to run out and do it elsewhere," said Morgana Smith, a 2nd-semester student at Hampshire.

She explained that, at the beginning of each semester, the wall is given a fresh coat of white paint and the project begins again. A project such as this could greatly reduce the prevalence of random graffiti at UConn.

Facilities Operations typically confers with local police when they discover or receive reports of vandalism of any kind, however, the perpetrators are rarely identified, unless there is photographic evidence of the students committing the crime. Because of the impending Open House, there was no time to wait for an investigation before removal of these particular pieces began. Luckily for police, there are some occasions where students will thoughtlessly post pictures of the crime online and can subsequently be made to repay the cost of repairing the damages their actions caused.

This article originally appeared on UCONN's The Daily Campus