Local artist paints downtown to prevent graffiti

Monday, August 10, 2009 | 8:20 p.m. CDT
A traffic control box painted by David Spear sits on the corner of Ninth Street and Broadway. The boxes are painted by local artists in an effort to prevent graffiti.

COLUMBIA — This summer, a local painter is creating artwork on a traffic control box in front of a captive audience of both pedestrians and drivers in downtown Columbia.

Dennis Murphy can be found during weekends on the Broadway and Hitt Street intersection, painting windows on all sides of the box, giving the impression that viewers are looking at the other side of the street.


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He is the second contributor to a project that aims to prevent future vandalism downtown by putting artwork on spots likely to attract unwanted graffiti.

Murphy's painting should be completed in about a month, though the process has been complicated by hot weather that causes the paint on his palette to dry, he said.

Marie Hunter, manager of the Columbia Office of Cultural Affairs, said this is the second box of many to come and follows the first pilot box painted in 2007.

Although every box will differ in cost, each requires around $1,500 for the artist’s time and expenses, $500 for the materials needed, and additional funds for possible future maintenance, Hunter said.

Since this project is part of the city’s multiple efforts to prevent graffiti, the box was funded by the Office of Cultural Affairs, the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Columbia Police Department and The District.

“The main components have to do with enforcement, so that vandals are caught and suffer consequences for damaging property that is not their own, and removal, so graffiti tags are removed as quickly as possible,” Hunter said.

Since the completion of the pilot box, Hunter said they have been using the time to determine the success of the program.

“We wanted there to be some time in between so we could see that the paint and sealant would hold up well over the winter and spring seasons,” Hunter said. “Since this is a graffiti abatement program, we also wanted to see if it would be tagged after it was painted.”

Hunter said since the pilot box was painted by artist David Spear in 2007, there has been no graffiti on the mural, even though the box was a previous target before the art was added.

Hunter said she is not aware of any studies on why this type of program prevents graffiti, but there are some possible explanations.

“You’re taking a blank canvas away from the potential vandal, which is why there aren’t a lot of open spaces in the designs,” Hunter said. “Also, in theory some people who do graffiti do it as some form of creative expression, so there would be a general respect for the art that is on the box.”

Because of the success of the first box, they developed an annual time line that allows them to paint one or two boxes per year, Hunter said.

Graffiti is a problem in many places, but the Columbia Police Department contacted the Office of Cultural Affairs about graffiti in the downtown area specifically, which is why the program is focused there, she said.

Although the emphasis is on graffiti prevention the art also adds to the unique downtown experience, said Sarah Skaggs, program specialist for the Columbia Office of Cultural Affairs.

“People enjoy having something new and interesting downtown, and it is an artistic way to bring attention to the issue of graffiti,” Skaggs said.

The art is done by a different local artist every time and does not have a theme, but Skaggs said prospective artists are asked to reflect the eclectic culture of downtown in their proposed artwork.

Hunter said they will open up for applications from local artists in December or January, and the chosen artist will begin around April, or as soon as weather permits.

As one of the contributors to this program, Murphy encourages other local artists to be a part as well.

“I think it is a wonderful idea, because it gets art in front of people that don’t normally go to galleries and museums to see art,” Murphy said.

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