Graffiti is destroying our national landmarks. I’m on a mission to stop it.

 

The Coconino sandstone at Grand Canyon means many things to many people. To the hiker, it indicates that he or she is almost at the top. To the artist, it is a graceful sweep of sculptured stone, and to the geologist, it evokes the trade winds blowing across Aeolian dunes 265 million years ago.

But to the graffiti punk, it is a blank canvas.

It’s a snap to scratch names, drawings and dates into sandstone.  Fortunately, most of the time it is easy to erase the same, using water, a scrub brush and some occasional blue language. For vandalism that’s not as easily removed, such as marks made by paint or with black or colored markers, park rangers have more powerful tools at their disposal, using rock-colored resin mastic to cover the panel, for example. In the worst cases, however, sometimes they end up having to cut out part of the rock. 

Graffiti is surging at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Joshua Tree, Arches and Zion national parks, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. At Capitol Reef and Independence Rock, ignorami scrawl their names over 100-year-old pioneer inscriptions. Even 4,000-year-old drawings from the Archaic Period have been scribbled on.

A sign in Canyonlands National Park.
David Hiser/National Park Service

Some pieces of “art” are so elaborate, you have to wonder that no one was caught in the act. One gentleman composed a 200-word eulogy to his late wife on the South Kaibab Trail – lovely sentiment, wrong place for it. Patriotic hikers executed a 4-by-6-foot Swiss flag.

Park Service policy is to remove such vandalism within 24 hours.  Unmolested graffiti invites others to leave their mark. Not to mention that it is ugly. 

Why do they do it? One tourist explained, “If I don’t write my name, how will anyone know I was here?” Sometimes foreign visitors express amazement that graffiti is prohibited. One Canadian perpetrator explained that the place was so beautiful he wanted to bring his grandchildren back to show them where he had spray-painted his name. The Park Service was not sympathetic. 

Some parks believe that the recent explosion in graffiti is related to social media. Now, you can gain immediate gratification by sharing your “masterpiece” via smartphone. One young woman chortled online about leaving her mark: “I know, I’m a bad person.”

But technology works both ways. Some parks have installed hidden video cameras, and the Park Service has a visual database that enables it to compare graffiti across parks. This has allowed the parks to occasionally track down wide-ranging vandals.

I’m still surprised when people tell me that because pioneers and Ancestral Puebloans wrote or drew on the rocks, visitors these days should also be allowed to. Some add that people have been leaving marks on walls since we lived in caves. In 100 years, they say, visitors will thrill to read, “Fred loves Zelda.” 

What is the difference between historic inscriptions and graffiti? Pioneers trudged across the country to settle in the back of beyond with no water, no food and no support. Some signed their names on the rocks at Capitol Reef, signaling their survival.

These days, tourists drive, park and walk almost a whole mile. After this horrendous ordeal, they sign their names. Nope, I don’t buy it; I know who the real pioneers were, and you are not pioneers.

Native Americans tell us that rock art sites are not abandoned sites. They are law books, story locales and places of power. Even now, young men will spend the night nearby, seeking visions. “I heart Grand Canyon” is not vision-inducing. 

Fans of graffiti as art argue that if Picasso or Monet painted on a wall, we would consider it a masterpiece. Critics of this view counter that if initials scrawled on a wall count as art, an overflowing trash container may also be considered art. 

Wilderness was defined by law in 1964 as “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Graffiti is trammeling. If you’re in a public space and you didn’t get permission to change it, that’s vandalism. 

My acquaintances and I share a common fantasy of catching one of these clowns in the act. We have imagined elaborate scenarios of revenge, from scratching a name on the vandal’s car to spraying “Hayduke lives!” across a perpetrator’s shirt. 

Actually, I have caught people in the act. Small children I simply admonish: “This is a national park and it is not fair to spoil it for everyone else,” I say. I am less polite to adults; I tell them that it is obvious they don’t hike much, because experienced hikers know better. 

Recently, I came across a young tween who was industriously drawing on a flat rock. I produced my squirt bottle and brush, erased the offending intaglio and advised her that graffiti is not only illegal but also unsightly and rude. Then I continued on my way.

When I returned, I realized that she had reproduced the drawing on the same rock. 

Next time I will dislocate her little thumbs. 

Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. She is an educator in Grand Canyon National Park.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • TRANSPORTATION PLANNER
    TRANSPORTATION PLANNER Exciting opportunity to lead the charge on meeting the future transportation demands of our community! This position will develop, coordinate, and implement the...
  • EARNED MEDIA MANAGER WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • WILDLAND FIRE INSTRUCTOR
    Needed: instructor with 5 years *documented* instruction experience, current qualifications, M-410 or equivalent, and able to work as-needed for NM non-profit working with at-risk youth.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...