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Tired Of Painting Gray Squares Over Graffiti, South Side Resident Connects Taggers With Community

Steve Root moved to Pittsburgh’s South Side in 2006, and right away, he knew he wanted to get involved in the community and make connections.

Root is a psychotherapist and social worker by trade, but remains a sculptor and photographer at heart. He’s always held an interest in the arts -- including street art. So, in 2007, he founded the volunteer group “Graffiti Watch,” with backing from the South Side Community Council.

90 Neighborhoods, 90 Good Stories is a weekly series celebrating people who make the place they live a better place to live.

“Our intention was never to eliminate graffiti," Root said. "It’s not possible. It’s part of the culture. It’s everywhere, in every country. But I think we needed to manage it, and establish what, in my mind, was a dialectic between us and the graffiti artists.”

He said the South Side’s vandalism problem is much more manageable now than it was 10 years ago. But still, Root said, painting over graffiti with plain, gray squares began to seem like a waste of time.

“Other artists I know, street artists, they kept jagging me about painting over graffiti, and I just got to a point where I said, ‘We gotta do public art, have murals,’" Root said. "So, for the past year, we’ve been working on developing this project, South Side Public Art.”

Graffiti Watch and the South Side Community Council commissioned a series of murals, to be painted along a long cinder block wall on Fox Way between 20th and 21st streets. The first one was completed in April; the next three were unveiled just a few weeks ago.

One of those murals was painted by Matt Spahr, a Plum-based artist whose work clearly reflects his street art beginnings. Spahr’s piece features winged eyeballs floating across a surreal city-scape, all done in bold lines and bright, eye-catching colors.

It’s his first mural. At the unveiling event, he was still up on the scaffolding, making some last minute tweaks to his work as a DJ blared music down the alley.

“He’s very hands on," Spahr said of Root. "He seems to have a personal investment in what’s going on with the murals. He’s just not like a typical building owner, property owner."

"No, he’s down here every day, seeing the progress -- not checking up on us, not bossing us or anything like that, but just showing up, and seeing how things are progressing, and giving us encouragement, and stuff like that.”

Spahr said he’d only heard stories of Root as a hard-line “graffiti buster” before the mural project, but now he calls him a “solid dude.” He said he appreciates that Root is trying to connect graffiti artists with the community at large.

“I don’t know if there will ever be 100 percent reconciliation between property owners and people who like to write on their property -- probably not, you know what I mean?" Spahr said. "But we’re trying to do what we can do. We’re just trying to take a step in the right direction.”

Since the unveiling, lots of other Pittsburgh-area artists have contacted Root in hopes of having a space in the South Side for their own work, and Root said the Community Council is looking into providing them with walls to paint on.

Root said some day, he’d love to be able to hold walking tours of murals throughout the South Side.

“We’re trying to keep this going," Root said. "It’s not just a one-time thing. We’re trying to sort of now have this become part of the culture of the South Side and Pittsburgh.”