The Art Park: Limiting Self-Expression?

While the UCSD Art Park strives to create an atmosphere of self-expression and creativity, its history tells of a complicated past of control and shutdown of these freedoms.

Folded against the brown eucalyptus trees that dot the UC San Diego campus are eight double-sided walls. Located right across from the Mandeville coffee cart, the UCSD Graffiti Art Park provides a vibrant change in scenery in both the bright paints that mark the surfaces of the walls and the colorful messages that are displayed across them. It is a designated space where students are able to express themselves artistically in a public setting, a place assured to receive attention without the threat of being censored, as graffiti often is.

Through the existence of the Art Park, it is clear that UCSD is trying to make an effort to not only enliven the campus with cultural sharing and artistic expression but also to provide a safe space where students can fight against hate and promote love and acceptance.

You probably heard the saying, ‘The best way to fight hate speech is with more speech,’” Sharon Van Bruggen, the University Centers director and one of the overseers for the Art Park said. “Well, when the Graffiti Art Park was conceived, that seemed to be the message the students wanted to convey. I don’t remember those words exactly, but when we discussed what to do if someone expresses something that might be harmful, the students said they wanted other students to counter it rather than have the campus police it. We’ve only received a few calls, since the park opened, with concerns. We generally refer to the website and guidelines and encourage use of the reportbias.ucsd.edu website [should the caller] believe it is warranted.”

In very much a good way, UCSD is providing students with a safe and controlled means of expression that is both compliant with student needs and with the university’s own policies. However, behind this desire to facilitate more of a “safe” environment for self-expression, the question arises: Is the university really allowing true expression or is it instead limiting students?

In order to answer that, a bit of background is needed. Behind the simplicity of the Art Park and its mission lies a complex history. In fact, the park itself can only really be understood as a result of the destruction of the old Graffiti Hall, which was previously located in Mandeville Hall. Formerly a stairwell that was dedicated toward the same idea of student expression, the Graffiti Hall was completely painted over in 2013 and has now been repurposed as a normal stairwell. The reason? According to an email sent by Associate Vice Chancellor of University Communications Stacie Spector, the hall was beginning to become overrun by what the university perceived as “trashy graffiti.” This attitude can be reminiscent of the perception of graffiti in the world outside of UCSD, where art and political expression is often dismissed by authorities as trash graffiti, and taken down as a result. At UCSD, it is the same. Now, in the place of painted walls and artful expressions, security cameras and clean fluorescent lights line the blank, white walls.

Quite understandably, many students were angered by this act, arguing that tearing away the Graffiti Hall was essentially stripping away pieces of UCSD’s history and culture. In fact, the Graffiti Hall had been a part of a UCSD subculture that was formed in the late 1970s, during which students would secretly graffiti different stairwells in buildings such as Applied Physics and Mathematics  or Humanities and Social Sciences. To them, the Graffiti Hall was more than just an area to express themselves — it was a living piece of history.

Much can be summed up by one Redditor’s comment (appearing on a UCSD subreddit page), which said, “Many plain responses were sharpied onto the new paint. But among them appeared this insightful bit, which forever changed my understanding of my relationship with the school: UCSD admins value pristine concrete over student expression.”

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Is this true? Do the leaders of UCSD care more about the cleanliness of the campus rather than freedom of expression?

According to Van Bruggen, the opening of the Art Park was a means to attend to the desire for more student expression. The Art Park was inspired by Writerz Blok, an urban art program that channels youth expression into safe spaces. By creating walls similar to the ones at UCSD’s Art Park, or by giving them appropriate places where they can create art, Writerz Blok has helped many youths find themselves through art. For Van Bruggen, this was behind the idea of the creation of the Art Park.

I can’t speak for what the students found inspiring at Writerz Blok, but for me it was how the artists there spoke about developing friendships, belonging, and a sense of pride in their community,” Van Bruggen said. “They spoke about respecting each other and finding their ‘voice’ through spending time at the park.”

In many ways, the Art Park does exactly that. It is safe, public, open, and provides a good channel for students who feel the need to voice themselves artistically. And yes, there are some people at this campus who feel it is a very useful and subjectively great program. Take, for example, John Muir College junior Esmeralda Lara. Having used the Art Park twice to display her own art, Lara feels it is a good way for her to express herself.

“I love it,” Lara said. “I think it is so smart and so amazing that the school gave artists the opportunity to put their art somewhere public. I relate to it personally because I’ve been doing spray-painting since high school. And I really had to restrict myself to places where I could put my art. You can’t go spray-painting walls because then you get in trouble for it, and then when people would spray-paint walls I would get in trouble for it, even though it wasn’t I who did it. So having a place where people could express themselves publicly is just amazing. I can’t even describe it.”

At the same time though, while these efforts by the university are commendable, it is vital to remember the history behind things such as the Art Park. After all, the administration has definitely been cutting many classes that used to interest students, such as art and recreation classes, as well as trying to close the Muir art gallery last year. As UCSD leadership slowly takes more and more control over student expression and becomes tighter with its regulations and policies, one cannot help but feel that this is not the end. If art and expression are meant to be free and have its full impact, then UCSD must be willing to allow places such as the Art Park to grow and flourish. This could include having the Art Park moved somewhere more visible, instead of being sequestered to a relatively isolated part of campus. Moreover, as the campus population grows, UCSD should also take measures to make the park larger in order to allow more students to express themselves. It must truly value the students and their input, and create an environment in which expression is possible beyond these eight walls.

Art by Alex Liang.

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