The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Thursday June 1st

Paintings Part of Town, Deter Graffiti Vandals

And taking care of the town's downtown walls isn't a simple or uncommon task. Chapel Hill's Public Works Department gets a call to clean up a graffiti tag fairly frequently, said Forrest Heath, buildings program supervisor.

"We probably have a graffiti call once every couple of weeks," Heath said. "But some weeks we'll have two or three."

Most tags are found on large outdoor trash containers, doors, transformer boxes and in alleyways. The markings are removed using a variety of chemicals and products, Heath said.

But when the tags happen to fall on mural walls, the department takes a more vested, prideful interest. "We try to protect the murals as much as we can," Heath said.

The procedure is a little different for cleaning tags on the murals -- moving out of the typical town chain of command. When a tag is spied on a mural, a call is made to Michael Brown, the artist responsible for many of the town's murals.

"We call Michael if there is a tag on the wall," said Robert Humphreys, director of the Downtown Commission. "He'll come in, touch it up or clean it up himself."

Brown colors over the tags, purchasing paints identical to the ones he originally used, and vanishes the tag. Humphreys considers the quick response to erase the tags to be the best form of graffiti prevention -- discouragement.

Sometimes Brown gets even more involved. A few years ago, he painted over a distinctive tag on his Henderson Street pencil mural only to see it again in an elementary school student's notebook. He traced the insignia to the student's older brother and contacted him.

"(Brown) said, 'Any time you make some artwork I will respect it and won't paint over it, and I expect you to give mine that same respect,'" Humphreys said.

Brown then invited the graffiti artist to join him in painting another mural and refurbishing older ones. But Brown doesn't try too hard to keep the murals looking new or to erase a tiny tag.

Aside from the occasional instance, Brown noted that graffiti taggers largely stay away from the murals. The worst taggers to deface his work, he said, were not even graffiti artists at all but the State Bureau of Investigation.

"The state had some bullet holes they needed to mark, so they took some lime-green spray-paint that was not removable and tagged over one of the murals," Brown said. "That was the worst damage I ever had."

Many actual graffiti taggers seem to have a respect for the murals that keeps them away.

"Mostly they seem to think I'm some sort of aging tagger who deserves respect," Brown said. "There must be some code for them."

Some think that it might be too much to vandalize a Chapel Hill institution -- and for many, that is what the murals have become.

"If you think about it, people don't deface Silent Sam or art around campus," Humphreys said. "People are generally pretty respectful.

"It's age-old, the appreciation of beauty and art, the respect for the work of an artist."

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at

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