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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Central Colorado Conservancy, located in Salida, Colorado, is seeking a Conservation Program Manager dedicated to managing the Conservancy's land protection program which includes developing and...
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.