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Dispute continues over graffiti near Pittsburgh's Color Park

In May, graffiti artists clashed with Friends of the Riverfront over the group’s management of Color Park, a site on the South Side where graffiti is legal. Some artists objected to a planned “refresh,” or painting over, of graffiti to make room for new art.

The refresh was itself quickly (and appropriately) painted over with more graffiti. But anyone who expected the controversy to end there was mistaken. The dispute now centers less inside the park, where artists still have nearly free reign, than along the adjoining riverfront trail.

Friends of the Riverfront executive director Kelsey Ripper said artists are painting further than ever outside the park’s boundaries — and that an increasing number of those messages are hate speech.

“It’s been harder and harder to manage that as the graffiti has spread,” Ripper said.

The group’s staff and volunteers paint out such messages as quickly as they can, she said. In recent weeks, the group has documented a swastika, a graffiti reading “Hail Hitler,” and another that used a slur for Black people. (The group shared the photos with WESA but asked that they not be published.)

A letter from Friends of the Riverfront to local graffiti artists.
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
Friends of the Riverfront recently posted on the trail several copies of this letter seeking dialogue with graffiti artists.

Friends of the Riverfront manages about 33 miles of riverfront trail. The section of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail between Color Park and South 18th Street runs just a half-mile, but maintaining it has proved disproportionately costly to the group. In one two-week period starting in late July, said spokesperson Kate Angell, Friends of the Riverfront spent nearly $800 on paint and more than 20 hours of staff and volunteer labor on the task.

Expending those kind of resources reduces the nonprofit group’s ability to do maintenance and programming on other parts of the trail, Angell said.

Some of the graffiti specifically targets Friends of the Riverfront for its painting over, or, in street-art parlance, “buffing.” On Aug. 5, a contributor on Reddit posted photos of stretches of the trail outside the park where patches buffed black by the group had been painted over with images of penises.

“Hey Karens stop this foolish mission,” read one message. Another said, “You buff we d*ck.”

An Aug. 15 visit to the trail found that a pair of the interpretative signs commemorating the riverfront’s industrial past had been scrawled on with silver paint reading, “Please Stop Buffing Color Park.”

Those signs were actually situated well outside Color Park, created in 2017 by Friends of the Riverfront and local artist Baron Batch.

The park proper runs along about a quarter-mile of trail from just after South 4th Street to about South 8th. It includes a large concrete patio with permanent benches and picnic tables overlooking the Monongahela River directly across from the Allegheny County Jail. The property is owned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority; a large adjacent paved area, while technically not part of the park, is similarly painted over.

Most of the artwork adorns the trail surface and the large concrete blocks stacked alongside. The vast majority is tags and short messages, from “Sober is beautiful” and “Everything will be okay” to “End the Abuse at the ACJ (Allegheny County Jail)", “Black Lives Matter” and “RIP Big Ralph.” A recent visit also found tic-tac-toe games, hopscotch grids, at least one SpongeBob, a carefully rendered star-bellied Sneetch (after Dr. Seuss), and a shark playing electric guitar.

Ripper estimates the incidents of hate speech as “at least dozens over the last few years,” though she said they’ve become more common since the controversial refresh.

In early August, the group posted an open letter to graffiti artists at multiple spots along the trail. It begins, “We want to ensure that the Color Park continues to offer a place for public artistic expression” before noting concerns about hate speech and vandalism and the desire to make the trail welcoming to all. “We invite you to contact us so we can find ways to move forward together,” it says.

As of Aug. 14, Ripper said no one has responded to the letter, though she notes that she has been in confidential or anonymous discussions with some artists herself.

“Most people that I have spoken to are very supportive of the Color Park but understand as well that, in order for the color park to continue to exist, there does need to be some boundaries and guidelines,” she said.

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Cam Schmidt is among those who have left their marks at Color Park. While Schmidt said the May refresh “rubbed him the wrong way,” he was appalled to hear that hate speech had been found on the trail. He said such messages are uncommon and that most graffiti artists who see them buff them themselves.

Schmidt acknowledged it is historically difficult to keep graffiti within the bounds of legal sites like Color Park; usually, he said, only self-policing by the street-art community works.

Opening a dialogue with artists could help, he said, but he added, “I do wonder who’s gonna want to do that now, just because Friends of the Riverfront has made themselves a bit antagonistic to that group.”

While Friends of the Riverfront plans to continue buffing artwork outside the bounds of Color Park, not everyone strongly echoes that concern.

Rosemarie Berman is a volunteer with the South Side Community Action Network, a neighborhood group. She said she loves Color Park but was alarmed by some instances of hate speech and obscene graffiti she saw on the trail a few weeks ago. She reported it to FOR, but not because it was outside the park.

“That wasn’t an issue in my mind. It was more about the content of what I saw,” she said.

Hazelwood resident Kevin Napper recently visited Color Park for the first time. Told of the controversy, he was upset that interpretative signs had been vandalized.

“Artists should come down here and at least respect the historical part of the park,” he said. “Don’t paint on the signs.”

But graffiti on trail surfaces outside the park didn’t faze him. “If you want to come down here to express yourself, and you want to put your art on the ground or whatever you want to do, do your thing!”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: