Graffiti: Art or Vandalism? A look at ‘tagging’ in Kent


Graffiti under the Haymaker bridge along the Cuyahoga River. This is most popular destination for tagging in Kent. 

Jarett Theberge

When it comes to expressing oneself through the means of visual art, there is an abundance of different media and techniques one can use. Graffiti offers a more adventurous and daring approach, but there is a problem: It’s illegal.  

If you walk along the Cuyahoga River in Kent and find yourself underneath the Haymaker Parkway bridge, there is an ample amount of graffiti covering most of the abutment wall and the support pillars.

The question remains: Is graffiti artistic expression or an act of vandalism?

Graffiti, defined in the city of Kent’s ordinance on the subject, is “any inscription, design, word, figure or mark of any type drawn, marked, painted, tagged or written upon any building, bridge, fence, gate, rock, structure, tree, wall or other property visible to the public which defaces, damages or destroys any public or private, real or personal property, without privilege to do so.”

Lt. Mike Lewis of the Kent Police Department said officers will perform foot patrols downtown and in the parks with the intent of catching taggers in the act.

“Several years ago, one of our officers even pursued a graffiti suspect through the Cuyahoga River, and he was apprehended in the river trying to escape,” Lewis said.

The city takes the act of defacing public space seriously. So much so that it is against the law to be in possession of a can of spray paint in certain parts of Kent, especially by the river.

Lewis said this is a preventative measure to help combat the already growing problem of graffiti vandalism.

Despite the law against it, graffiti is a hobby for many and can use it to place obscene images or slogans to get a rise out of the public, as well as those whose job it is to keep the park welcoming and clean. 

Sam Tuttle, the park supervisor for Kent Parks and Recreation, said hate symbols like swastikas or vulgar sex references take priority when it comes to removing graffiti.

“We get it all the time,” Tuttle said. “When we can, we try to respond as soon as it’s altered. The Haymaker bridge is especially difficult because it’s such a massive area.”

Tuttle said the undersides of Fairchild Avenue and Main Street bridges will often have multiple pieces show up overnight.

To prevent the paint from lasting, the tunnel under the Fairchild bridge was finished with a vandal coating so that it can easily be taken off with a power washer.

In 2013, the park had teamed up with the School of Architecture and Environmental Design and painted over the tag-ridden wall under the Haymaker bridge with a plain coat of paint. Just one week went by before tags started to appear again.

If it is against the law to place graffiti in public and there are organizations that remove it so promptly, why do people still do it?

Lindsey, a photographer who has been documenting her travels with graffiti crews in Cleveland for the past four years, said graffiti as a culture offers a competitive environment that centers around artistic creation.

The fear of getting caught by the police and being the first to claim the best spots fuels the game by weighing the risks and rewards.

While Kent has its issues with graffiti as vandalism, Lindsey said the amount here is not even close to places like Akron or Cleveland, where there exists a culture of graffiti crews that scour the city looking for the best spots to tag.

“Groups want to have the best spot on the wall,” Lindsey said. “They want to have the best spot on the freeway or if a train is going by. It does get less competitive in abandoned buildings though because there is so much wall space.”

Lindsey said tagging is difficult in Kent due to the shortage of abandoned structures. 

Because of the lack of competitive environment for graffiti in Kent, Lindsey said the paint under the Haymaker bridge is more of a nuisance than any kind of artistic expression.

“When I look at that, I don’t really see graffiti at all, as opposed to people just scribbling,” Lindsey said. “It is graffiti by its technical definition, but I see it as an art form. I don’t see art under the bridge.”

In a sense of constructive vandalism, tag groups will cover up indecency on occasion and replace it with something more meaningful. However, Lindsey said there is a fine line when it comes to doing this, as it creates bad blood between groups.

Serious graffiti artists don’t take their craft lightly. The materials used on some of the more technical pieces shown on Lindsey’s Instagram page feature paint that has to be purchased at higher prices opposed to cans you can get at Walmart.

So depending on where you live, graffiti is as legitimate an art form as any other.

If you still find yourself standing on the banks of the Cuyahoga River under the Haymaker bridge, look toward downtown, and you’ll see a mural painted on the other side.

A piece that was legally sanctioned by the city.

Elaine Hullihen, an artist and former Kent State student, was the lead artist in the design of the mural for the Haymaker Farmers Market.

In 2012, Hullihen painted the mural with a group of other contributors, and it incorporated the themes of vegetables and community, partnered with the Wick Poetry Center to include poems written by students.

The brown and orange parts of the mural were intended to be a sort of wallpaper for the composition, and each pattern makes a reference to the history of Kent.

Much like how graffiti artists take advantage of public space to express themselves, Hullihen and her team used the mural to bring the community together.

With the commissioned and legally sanctioned mural juxtaposing the painting considered vandalism on the other side of the river, Hullihen said the intention was not to send a message of anti-graffiti.

However, the mural itself is covered in a similar protective coating to the one used under the Fairchild bridge to easily remove any tags that may be placed on the mural.

To Hullihen, graffiti and approved murals are both art in her mind. Graffiti can give character to a location and create memories that last for years.

“I remember standing on Main Street on the bridge over the river and looked over to the wall by the train tracks when I first moved to Kent, and in simple white letters was the quote, ‘I worry that religion starts wars,’” Hullihen said. “I don’t know if you can still see it, but that was something about Kent that really drew me in, and it was thoughtful.”

Using blank space as a canvas to create something meaningful is not the same as making vulgar and offensive jokes or references. Hullihen said you should be able to decipher where the artist or the vandal is coming from in each piece you look at.

“I can understand property owners not wanting their property vandalized,” Hullien said, “but on the other hand, being a part of the city or town, graffiti is kind of awesome.”

Jarett Theberge is a visual arts reporter. Contact him at [email protected].