By Lee Chottiner
(Editor’s note: This is a revised version of the earlier story, which contains new information.)
Wheeling doesn’t have a museum of art (which is a shame), but it does have paintings on its walls.
You can see them covering the concrete on the Mt. Wood Overlook, competing for attention with the panoramic view of the Ohio Valley.
You can see them in the tags and phallic symbols sprayed on the brick facades of National Road and South Wheeling.
And you can see them in the professional and impressive street art murals along the Ohio River Heritage Trail and on the piers below the I-70 Bridge.
Wheeling has graffiti. The urban art genre isn’t as dense as it appears in larger cities, but it’s citywide all the same, popping up in North, South and East Wheeling, in Woodsdale and in Elm Grove.
It’s not a new issue. In fact, graffiti is almost as old as civilization itself.
“Graffiti is something people have done forever,” said Brian Fencl, chairman of the Department of Journalism, Communication Studies and Visual Art at West Liberty University. “If you go to Europe and look at the ancient ruins, people were scratching their names and writing on the walls thousands of years ago.”
But graffiti does pose some questions: Is it art or vandalism? If it’s art, then should it be called graffiti at all? And if it’s vandalism, then what should Wheeling do about it?
Art or vandalism? According to Fencl, the answer to that question depends on the graffiti itself, and he identified two kinds: tagging and street art.
He didn’t mince words about tagging. “If you look at it visually, it is pretty ugly, it doesn’t have anything redeemable; it’s pretty meaningless.”
And the taggers themselves aren’t especially interested in reaching, let alone inspiring, a wide audience.
“They’re doing it for each other,” Fencl said. “They’re not doing it for you; they’re not doing it for me. They’re not doing it because they have something to say. They’re doing it probably to compete with each other.”
No place in Wheeling has been more magnetic for tagging than the Mt. Wood Overlook, a concrete foundation just off National Road, which towers over the Ohio River, but has been literally covered with graffiti for years.
Though owned by the city, little has been done in recent years to keep the Overlook, which is a potential attraction for visitors to the city, free of graffiti.
Numerous art experts interviewed for this story all said the graffiti at Mt. Wood has little, if any, artistic value. One went so far as to label it, “crap.”
But getting rid of this crap isn’t easy.
Joe Forrester, director of operations for the city, said his men have tried to keep the Overlook clean in the past, but the graffiti artists are resilient and cover up the walls almost as soon as they’re cleared.
That and other demands upon his shorthanded team, he said, have made it difficult to address vandalism there.
“Our biggest thing is manpower,” Forester said. “With everything we have to do, trying to keep up, graffiti sometimes gets put on the back burner. With the amount of manpower we have, we’re really stretched.”
That’s a shame given its view, and what it could mean for the tourism industry here.
“It would be a great place to visit; it’s a beautiful overlook if it were cleaned up,” Forester said. “The problem is, by the time we do anything up there, here they [the taggers] come again.”
There may be another way to address the problem. The Mayor’s Art and Cultural Commission will experiment with growing moss on the concrete at the Overlook.
“Arts Fest put us behind on testing whether the moss would thrive, but we are concerned about the site,” said Erika Donaghy, who chairs the commission. “We should be moving on it in the coming weeks.”
Volunteers will apply a solution or “paint” to parts of the Overlook surface. The paint will consist of moss, buttermilk and other ingredients, according to Donaghy.
“I personally hope that the moss works,” she said. “An uneven surface, it seems, would discourage vandalism.”
The opposite of tagging, Fencl said, is street art.
“That stuff is more proficient,” Fencl said. “It is technically more interesting and it’s meant for a wider audience.
“It has a more coherent message, more sophisticated in creation, and its audience is much broader than the kids who are tagging,” he continued. “It’s more visually structured; it’s still pretty rough, but there tends to be more history behind it. So the people doing street art have been doing it longer and they’ve thought about it.”
There are some excellent examples of street art in the city, including the tribute to firefighters who responded on 9-11, which covers a wall along the Wheeling Heritage Trail under the Suspension Bridge. It was painted for a film shot in Wheeling called Doughboy.
Then there are the fairy tale murals under the I-70 Bridge. Done by another West Liberty University art professor, Bob Villamagna, his students and volunteers, the project came about two years ago as part of an honors college course Villamagna taught on street art and graffiti.
“I was going to give the students an on-sight experience—a legal one, of course, not the more rebellious kind,” he said, “but at least they would have an experience of working with visual art in a public place.”
The murals were done in two phases. Villamagna’s students worked on the first phase, which covered the piers on the west side of Main Street.
“I went ahead and laid things out in chalk because there were six or eight students, and only one really had any art experience. For the rest I was directing or orchestrating this thing; they plugged colors in, but at least they had the experience.”
For the second phase, which targeted the east side piers, Villamagna called for volunteers on Facebook.
“I put an announcement on Facebook saying if you want to be part of a street art project, meet me under the bridge,” Villamagna said. “I did that every couple of days. Some days I had two people, some days I had eight. Some days I had people for a half hour; sometimes they’d stay all day.”
No experience was necessary, he added. “If you were able to hold a brush in your hand, that’s all you needed to do.”
Just how good are his murals?
“No one has touched those piers with graffiti,” said Susan Hogan, a member of the Mayor’s Art and Cultural Commission, who actually commissioned Villamagna’s paintings. “I believe graffiti artists around here leave the good art alone.”
Well, almost no one has touched them. State highway engineers recently marked a couple of the piers in need of maintenance.
“I think they could have been a little more discreet with their spray cans,” Villamagna said, “but that’s life in the big city.”
Street art in Wheeling is an attraction, not a problem. The works are commissioned and they enhance the historic, sometimes dilapidated cityscape. In short, street art is something the city should want.
Tagging, however, is a problem. The question is, what to do about it?
Tom Murphy has a solution: Give the taggers their own public space.
Murphy, a three-time mayor of Pittsburgh from 1994 to 2006, faced the same issue while he was in office. He addressed it by designating wall space along a city highway for graffiti artists to cover.
“We would create places, and one was along the Eliza Furnace Trail, better known as the Jail Trail, which is very, very visible along Second Avenue and the Parkway, “ said Murphy, who today is a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C. “We sort of identified panels along that concrete wall as places where people could legally do graffiti—I would say we licensed them, but that would probably indicate it was too bureaucratic—and people respected, I think, each other’s space.”
At the same time, Murphy cracked down on graffiti elsewhere in the city. Taggers who were caught were prosecuted, fined and even went to jail.
Did it work?
“As a citizen, I don’t see as much of it,” said Murphy, who still lives in Pittsburgh. “When you’re mayor you notice litter; you notice graffiti; it’s sort of a measure of how well the city is being managed. I don’t see as much graffiti around the city as I used to.”
Hogan said designating an area in Wheeling for graffiti artists is on her list of things to do.
“That’s one of my goals, to get a building [for graffiti artists],” she said. “It’s been discussed, but we have not followed through with the city because, at this point, it’s been kind of under control. It’s just a goal, but we have other priorities.”
Fencl endorsed the idea of a public space for graffiti artists.
“I think trying to create an outlet for those people is the best thing you can do,” he said.
He pointed to the skate park in Elm Grove as an example of how designated public space can control nuisance activity and even enhance the city.
“That’s a great place for people interested in that [sport] to go and build those skills,” he said. “It’s better than if you had them skate all over the place, creating chaos.”
But cracking down on taggers will never work, he believes. They’ll simply go someplace else.
“If kids are doing this activity, they are telling you something; they’re telling the community something,” he said. “The city is always better off responding to this in creative ways. If you crack down on anyone doing it, and send them to jail, you will probably get more; they’ll probably take it as a challenge and continue to do it.”