COLUMBIA — Brandon Wright, a deacon at the Karis Community Church, leaned over a stubborn sticker on a Cherry Street mailbox with a razor in his hand Saturday morning.
"Vandals call it buffing; I guess we are de-buffing," he said.
The volunteers from the church had gathered earlier at a downtown cafe across from Karis Loft. With a pile of buckets and brushes, they separated into three groups for a city cleanup drive. For the next two hours, teams of four or five people scoured Cherry Street, Seventh Street, Peace Park and the alleys in between for graffiti and stickers on light posts and mailboxes. They got down on hands and knees, sprayed a non-toxic cleaner on stickers and graffiti and rubbed them off with pads. They also picked up trash such as straws under trees and plastic cups from bushes.
"We want to take care of what God gave us and the city where we live," Wright said, kneeling and scraping stickers off a mailbox. "We have to take care of it."
Event organizers said it was also an effort to spruce up the city before the Roots 'N Blues 'N BBQ festival next weekend.
The cleanup drive was the fourth one in the past year and a half for Karis Community Church.
"This was the easiest drive of all," said Rob Gaskin, a pastoral assistant at the church, referring to the smaller amount of graffiti and advertisement stickers on public property than at past cleanup events. "One reason is that there are more community groups that organize such drives now. The other is that there is a greater awareness against graffiti among the public, that (the city) is our own backyard."
The church has set up a hot line where the public can report graffiti on their property and the church will help clean it up.
"The city has been trying to eliminate graffiti by police enforcement and regular removal of graffiti," Leigh Britt, Columbia volunteer coordinator, said. "(The city) also had artist David Spear paint artwork on a light box at the corner of Ninth Street and Broadway to prevent vandalism."
Gaskin said graffiti is a big financial problem for homeowners and small-business owners.
"They do not have the time and money to remove the writings from their walls," he said.
This is where Karis comes in by consistently holding graffiti cleanup drives; Karis Loft will often invite artists to find an outlet for their creativity, he said.
"Look at what they are saying — they talk of hope and peace, but those expressions are invalid to a degree in the manner in which it is presented," Gaskin said. "They use property of somebody else and lose credibility."
That said, Gaskin headed off to show what he called the little-known "graffiti beach" tucked under a culvert over a remote part of the Flat Branch Creek. But it's not so remote after all. The huge colorful walls filled with layers of graffiti over murky creek waters, away from public view, paint a different world from the prim downtown.
"Notice the creativity and the array of subcultures at play here," Gaskin said. "I don't want to clean it up because these are the best graffiti in Columbia. And they are not hurting anybody or any businesses. I can see the duality of hope and misery in these paintings. We need to work together to make this creativity something positive."