Campus Creativity Brushed Under the Stairs

    Christina Aushana/Guardian

    ON CAMPUS — The excess paint from a bold “G” — beginning the phrase “Get up, stand up/ Stand up for your rights,” sprayed onto the wall of Mandeville Center’s second-floor staircase — runs down to the floor. The Bob Marley lyric is modestly written, small in comparison to surrounding designs and messages; its relevance, however, resounds through the stairwell.

    Spray painted in red and black, this sentiment embodies the overall atmosphere of Graffiti Alley, and the ideals it represents. At a time when so many of our student rights are being stripped without our knowledge or consent, the persistence of Graffiti Alley should be of paramount importance.

    Unauthorized graffiti and its recent spread across all corners of Mandeville is an issue for many administrators, including those in UCSD’s Department of Admissions and School Relations and the nearby visual arts department. This has long been a source of frustration for students and administrators alike, and tensions have recently tightened. The fate of Graffiti Alley is uncertain as administrators in both departments simultaneously recognize its illegality and acknowledge it as an enduring tradition — still, an acknowledgement not marked by approval.

    According to Stephen Hepwart, the director of the University Art Gallery in Mandeville, there are various reasons for wanting to get rid of Graffiti Alley: Some feel the fumes are hazardous, and administrators see the graffiti as unattractive, creating areas that the university can’t show off.

    Spray painting the alley is technically illegal, but the problem became more apparent last winter when the paint started to spread past one isolated spot. In late January, due to the proliferation of graffiti into other areas of Mandeville, administrators in the visual arts and music departments employed residential security officers to more strictly regulate student activity in Graffiti Alley.

    “The administration told us the same things they do in a lot of things,” UCSD police Sgt. John Smart said. “They asked us to use our good judgment. … We take action by the Student Code of Conduct or write citations for vandalism. … The administration wants to get it out to the public that this is vandalism. But we do realize that is it a long tradition, so we use our own discretion in every situation … and usually handle it informally — usually a write-up or a citation.”

    As if penalizing individuals in Graffiti Alley isn’t enough, the Department of Admissions and School Relations wants to ensure that possible future Tritons don’t know about the alley, asking its campus tour guides not to bring groups to the stairwell or mention it at all because it is not authorized by the school, and apparently should therefore not be associated with the university. This sudden change of heart is another shocking blow to student freedom, arriving amid already shaky free-speech policies.

    “The University instructs us not to mention Graffiti Alley,” campus tour guide Rebecca Williams said. “It is because it is a part of the school that isn’t sanctioned. They don’t want people coming to the school and thinking it is okay with the administration to spray paint over Mandeville.”

    While the actions occurring in the hallway may be outlawed, Mandeville’s graffiti-covered stairwell is a decades-old monument at UCSD.The administration’s attempt to prevent students from spray painting and to discontinue the life of Graffiti Alley is not only thoughtless to the needs of students, it is futile — even on the weak claim that students could be in danger because of fume exposure.

    “It’s not dangerous,” said Michael Capparelli, an Eleanor Roosevelt College senior who takes the staircase every day to class and work. “Most of the spray painting takes place at night, so the fumes are out of the hallway by the time students use it for class.”

    If fumes are indeed the administration’s concern, it should be kept in mind that there are other staircases in Mandeville that students could use instead of Graffiti Alley.

    Most saddening is that the place administrators wish to keep stowed away is filled with the voices, thoughts, concerns and personalities of UCSD’s active student body. Expressing oneself in a hallway already covered in graffiti can hardly be considered vandalism. The artwork ought to be seen as a proud product of our individualism, practiced in one of the only places that such an act could still be possible.

    For some, Graffiti Alley is a place to feel rebellious, as spray painting can instill a sense of defiance. Some students scrawl messages and symbols generally perceived as crude and offensive; many others see Graffiti Alley as a safe haven in which to release their artistic inclinations. John Muir college senior Ji-San Lee has frequented Graffiti Alley throughout his college experience.

    “It was my outlet,” Lee said. “After a week or so of stress, myself and others would go there just to get it all out. In a university that puts a lot of pressure on students to do well academically, Graffiti Alley kept and keeps a lot of students sane. Some people find their outlet in gyms, I found mine in that hallway.”

    UCSD ranks as one of the top public universities in the country. Our workload is heavy, and the academic and extracurricular standards we are expected to meet in order to succeed are challenging. Graffiti Alley is a place of retreat, separate from the world of exams, term papers and competitive pressure in which we otherwise live. Many visit Graffiti Alley and do not even paint.

    “I know a lot of students who go to the hallway and just look around,” Lee said.

    It is a place where students can rest their eyes from the insipid fonts of schoolbook texts, and instead set them on colorful designs and messages. Some of the stairwell’s contributions are controversial, some are humorous, some are pensive — but all are stimulating. You don’t have to be a frequent visitor or participant to recognize the importance of Graffiti Alley to the UCSD experience.

    “When you visit, you feel that the university is fostering a place for students to have an opinion — thoughtful, religious, vulgar, funny, political, whatever,” ERC sophomore Cassandra Kerkoff said. “They need to keep in mind the message they’re sending out to students in trying to get rid of it. To students, it seems like they’re saying, ‘We don’t accept free speech, we don’t encourage it.’”

    It’s alarming but undeniable — the university is further painting itself as an enemy to free speech by shying from this popular and harmless form of expression. These increasingly active attempts to cease the activity in Graffiti Alley come at a time when outspoken discontent with authoritative regulations is being silenced. The Free Speech Policy and the addition of Section 510 to the UCSD Policy and Procedure Manual forbids students to spontaneously gather in groups of more than 10 anywhere on campus in order to demonstrate.

    Additionally, the UC Board of Regents has just discreetly passed a policy banning nonaffiliate access to university property for purposes of demonstration. Individuals speaking freely on Library Walk are in this way socially condemned, judged as unusual and as a disturbance to the university’s ever-precious peace.

    If we are to maintain our voice in campus affairs, the administrators in the UC Office of the President have ensured that what we’re going to say has the approval of the school. Our right to speak in a group has been muted, our right to assemble has been condemned, our right to witness the views of outsiders has been limited and now, the only opportunity for us to express any opinion — written, drawn, or sprayed — without administrative interference is being threatened. Officials are frustrated that graffiti has leaked to other parts of Mandeville? Perhaps it is because it is one of the only places we have left to say what we think, and a tiny hallway hidden within the art department hardly provides enough room.

    A government should create laws and regulations for the people and by the people; a university holds the same obligations to its student body. The administration here at UCSD is failing to keep our greater interests in mind. Spray painting in Mandeville is technically illegal, but so is condemning our free speech. And until space is made somewhere else on campus for us to express ourselves without regulation or pre-approval, students should spray away in the only place we have left to speak our minds.

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