Buff Zone: Color Park controversy

A couple of weekends ago I went for a run along one of my usual routes on the South Side stretch of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. While crossing beneath the span of the Birmingham Bridge I noticed the words “Buff Zone” graffitied onto the pile foundations and sporadically spotting the asphalt of the trail itself.

I initially attributed the words as the work of a budding graffiti writer taking advantage of some of the unvarnished surfaces afforded by the river trail. But a little further on I came across a placard bearing the stenciled aerosol phrase “Let’s Talk” along with the logo of Friends of the Riverfront, and I stopped to read the attached message.

Attached to the sign was an open letter from Friends of the Riverfront (FOTR) — a volunteer organization that maintains Pittsburgh’s trails — addressed to “Local Graffiti Artists.” The letter seeks to open a dialogue about how to maintain “public artistic expression” along the trail while asserting boundaries for acceptable locations and content of graffiti in the area.

Since 2017 the section of the South Side trail known as the Color Park has functioned as a sanctioned graffiti zone, serving as an open surface for aerosolized expression. This past May FOTR conducted what they called a “refresh” of the space which involved painting over the park with white primer. While FOTR advertised the refresh online and invited community members to take part in the painting, the refresh first came to my attention through social media images of the stark white concrete quickly being covered with anti-FOTR messages. The refresh sparked visible contestation between competing visions of the space, with the dispute spilling beyond the confines of the Color Park to take up real estate further along the trail.

Having encountered this evidence of the ongoing conflict I now understood the “Buff Zone” messages in proper context. In the lexicon of street art “buffing” refers to the painting over of graffiti, either as a mere effort of removal or to prepare the surface for further application. So the proliferation of the “buff zone” graffiti along the South Side trail can be read both as a rhetorical recasting of the Color Park painting as an act of anti-graffiti “buffing” rather than the more nominally neutral “refresh,” as well as a deliberate challenge to the spatial boundaries of the permitted graffiti zone.

In contrast to the ostensible free-for-all of the Color Park, there are now indications of “buffing” all along the trail.

The spread of graffiti beyond the boundaries of the Color Park is one of the issues that FOTR have highlighted as unacceptable and needing to be reined in. From my own anecdotal observations, the proliferation of graffiti outside of the Park has undoubtedly accelerated since the “refresh.” However, I think an incremental “seepage” of aerosol began much earlier. In the summer of 2021 the trail was resurfaced (this work was conducted by city crews, so perhaps under the supervision of ALCOSAN or DOMI). The new asphalt provided an excellent canvas where spraypaint would stand out in stark contrast against the fresh tarmac, and as soon as the resurfacing was complete I noticed the creep of graffiti outside the limits of the Park.

Another aspect of the conflict seems to hinge on the ephemerality or disposability of graffiti art. One of the first messages to appear in the newly refreshed Color Park read: “You painted over dead artist work, be ashamed.” This sentiment speaks to an expectation of permanence or preservation that is largely foreign to common practices and understandings of street art. The transience of street art is perhaps even more assured in a sanctioned graffiti space. I pass through the Color Park several times a week, and every time I can be assured to see new expressions of aerosol atop the accreted layers of paint.

For instance, compare the current Color Park conflict with another of Pittsburgh’s legal graffiti spaces. In 2020 a permitted graffiti wall was established in an alleyway between Liberty Beer and Trace Brewing in Bloomfield. The wall bears a list of rules and guidelines for artists, including the directive: “Your art will not last forever, do not get attached!”

I think that the accessibility of the Color Park — both in terms of the openness of the space and the permissiveness toward painting — produced a broad demographic of users with differing attitudes toward and levels of experience with graffiti art. And this diversity of usership can be seen as a success of the spirit in which the Park was established. But it also accounts for the strong reactions to the “refresh.” The refresh itself must have been seen as a violation of norms by users who had become accustomed to the evolving nature of the ostensibly unsupervised space: FOTR announced that the 2023 re-painting would become an annual part of their maintenance activities, but it was the first such “refresh” in the nearly seven years of the Color Park’s existence. There is also a discernible divergence of opinion amongst more seasoned graffiti writers with histories of painting all over Pittsburgh, and those who seem more attached to the sanctioned space of the Color Park itself. I’ve discussed the Color Park with longtime Pittsburgh street artists who dismiss the sanction space as a product of PR-driven poseurs, and you only need to follow the river trail over to the north side of the Monongahela to find illicit aerosol messages proclaiming the superiority of “real graffiti.” And some social media speculation has attributed the most aggressive backlash over the refresh to one or two artists who had seemingly claimed the Color Park as their personal showcase space. In a recent news article about the controversy an FOTR representative said that the group had not yet received any responses to their open letter. But in the meantime there is some sort of communication playing out along the trail.

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