Under the Bridge: Graffiti at the C&O Canal

April 12, 2012

“Georgetown was kind of like our showroom.”

“George,” who spoke on the condition of anonymity for legal reasons, was an active graffiti artist in the area until he left for college in 2008. “It was prime real estate. If you could hold a good rooftop for a week, two weeks, it was pretty admirable.”

Georgetown is home to an amateur graffiti crowd, and their primary territory is the area at the intersection of the C&O Canal, Whitehurst Freeway, Key Bridge, and a remaining abutment of the Aqueduct Bridge. It attracts runners, walkers, and cyclists every day of the week.

After dark, well covered and away from nighttime foot traffic, this low-key spot has become a makeshift museum of D.C. graffiti, which includes a variety of styles. Techniques include tags, or simple signatures, throw-ups (larger, more complicated pieces), and illustrated stickers.

These artists fly under the law enforcement radar, which is anomalous in a heavily policed neighborhood where residents lean heavily on city law enforcement to tamp down on petty crime. This year, the Metropolitan Police Department has cited underage drinkers using fake IDs at Third Edition, Rhino Pumphouse, and Towne Liquor, and parties almost inevitably end with a knock on the door from neighborhood SNAP patrol. The canal, though, consistently operates right under the nose of law enforcement.

The spot’s seclusion minimizes risk for graffiti artists, but its low profile and lack of visibility deters the more central writers of Washington’s graffiti scenes.

“A little more experienced guys … you don’t see any of their work down there,” said Matt, a blogger who also requested anonymity. “It’s mostly new upstarts, sometimes just Georgetown students. Got a lot of guys trying out new things down there.”

His blog, Illegal DC Graffiti, features photos of anything he can find on the city’s walls. According to him, the artists who frequent the canals are looking to hone their skills before displaying their work in more public spots.

“That’s also what the bridge was for us, as was the tunnel underneath the canal. They were practice areas until you could wait for the city to die down and nail it on a roof,” George said.

In addition to copious graffiti, the canal provides a haven for people to drink alcohol and smoke by the aqueduct abutment. A daytime walk around the area reveals a dozen or so empty beer cans, lots of broken glass, a few cigarillo wrappers, and spray paint can caps.

“I’m not trying to blow up the spot, but for people who are underage…it’s just a spot to drink at or hang out,” Matt said.

A local  named Patrick frequented the canal during his high school years in the District. He is now a photographer who often bikes around the city late at night. According to him, the area became a haven for late-night debauchery during the years when the District was slow to adopt the 21-year drinking age required by Virginia and Maryland.

“The District really quickly, until this law changed, was really a hotspot for activity like this,” Patrick said. “Georgetown in particular used to be one of these spots for drinking beer or whatever. It’s a place where young people tend to congregate.”

Patrick has witnessed the neighborhood’s rising affluence and changing character, but insists that the canal has stayed the same. “As the law changed and as Georgetown became really hip real estate, I think most of that element left Georgetown real quick, but the canal has pretty much remained unchanged,” he said.

Deputy Superintendent of the C&O Canal Historic Park Brian Carlstrom witnessed this trend firsthand. “As one of those people that was part of that, yeah, that could have been a carry over, sure,” he said. “I grew up in Northern Virginia. The drinking was in that range where you’re still legal in D.C., but not in Virginia or Maryland.”

Correlating with this characteristic youth, an air of artistic immaturity permeates a lot of the work around the canal, with work skewing towards the cruder side of the average graffiti tag. Selections include a middle finger and a cannabis leaf with the accompanying advice “smoke weed… and maintain.” Daytime joggers might also encounter tags of “PUSSY” and “SLUT,” alongside a manifesto ending in the phrase “smoke blunts and eat cunts.”

“There’s an element of immaturity that definitely runs in high school kids,” Patrick said. “That’s still there today. I would attribute it to that there are high school kids who go up there to have a beer or something like that.”

Shannon Waldo, who is currently homeless and living under the Key Bridge, has noticed such illegal activity. “Seasonally, right past the bridge, you’ve got the point, or what we call ‘the ledge,’” he said. “There’ll be a lot of young college kids drinking and smoking and that. About two weeks ago a bunch of bicycle cops come down and they busted about 25 college kids over there. Drinking, partying and that.”

Despite the occasional encounter between these kids and the police, there is a relatively weak police presence along the canal, which lies in the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Some believe that the agency’s minimal day-to-day presence contributes to the area’s secluded vibe.

“The park system is a little less active…like I said—the financial constraints,” said Matt. “They [NPS] go out and they paint that thing once a year or when someone complains, or there’s an incident down there, or something.”

“I know for myself when I’m biking down there taking photos I’ve never seen any police presence. Now, MPD could probably work with NPS on this. I haven’t seen any such cooperation,” Patrick said.

But despite the perceived lack of patrol, Waldo has noticed law enforcement officials around the area, with patrollers coming to pick up trash and check for illegal activity. “Yeah they do come down,” Waldo said. “Even regular police undercover in plain clothes.”

Part of the lack of consistent and effective patrolling may derive from the multiple agencies which claim jurisdiction over the area. Metropolitan Police Department has authority over some of the property in the canal area, but that does not necessarily mean that it is more thoroughly managed, and the question of “who’s in charge of what” leads to confusion.

“There’s a multitude of jurisdictions through there,” said Carlstrom. “It’s all along the canal, but the surfaces consistently tagged do not necessarily belong to the Park Service. A lot of the surfaces that get tagged are not actually property of the Park Service for managing or painting.”

This shared jurisdiction breaks up the area in ways that are sometimes counterintuitive—a person could be standing on Park property, like the towpath, and paint a building that is private property, or one of the abutments of the Whitehurst Freeway or the Key Bridge, which are managed by the District of Columbia.

For administrators like Carlstrom, this presents a problem. “Sometimes it won’t mean that we won’t paint over them, but for us, we’ve got very limited resources for maintaining the canal,” he said. “So, we’ve basically got half a dozen people maintaining the functional waterway, the canal, from Seneca, which is 23 miles upstream from Georgetown, all the way into Georgetown.”

The C&O Canal relies on volunteers to paint the surfaces by the bridge, and the park has a “working relationship” with the Georgetown Business Improvement District to organize volunteer groups to paint over the surfaces. “I mean, I wish I had a maintenance staff that would be doing that one day a week. We just don’t have the resources to do it,” Carlstrom said.

“We try to [paint over graffiti] on a periodic basis when it really gets bad,” said Carlstrom. “It’s really been a losing battle to clean up the graffiti.”

Of the two agencies in charge, MPD is more active than NPS when it comes to repairing surfaces.

“You can call the number that’s the same for the MPD and report graffiti, and they’ll pretty much come and clean it up,” said Matt. “There are incentives for D.C. residents and tax incentives for residents and D.C. business owners to keep their businesses clean.”

Although Matt said “the task force is pretty responsive,” MPD is not focused on the small-time graffiti artists who frequent the canal. “They crack down on a lot of the, you know, kind of the bigger crews.”

This focus on gang graffiti makes the canal a sort of tragedy of the commons. If the walls don’t belong to any single business, it might not be worth keeping it clean to those footing the bill.

But despite this focus on gangs, artists are still very cautious of revealing their identities, as police presence outside of this complicated and secluded area is pervasive. When asked for contact information of frequent taggers, Matt was hesitant.

“The D.C. scene, there are so many policemen,” he said. “They get busted so much that they like to keep their circle pretty tight. You might be hard pressed.”

Even among artists, personal associations with graffiti are also tenuous. Artists are anxious—even paranoid—about the possibility of their work being linked to them publicly, and as a result are fiercely protective of their identities.

“I would just prefer there was no possible connection to me,” George requested. “It was a very immature time in my life. The thing is that the D.C. Vandalism Squad has every single tag that I ever did, like they do with everyone’s, logged into their books, so that you can be threatened with everything.”

±plusmn is one of the more accessible street artists in the city. In addition to updating a personal blog with her wheatpastes, stickers, and tags, she can also be reached via email. Despite this openness, however, she denied requests for a phone interview.

Despite its inherent threats to anonymity, Internet exposure does have its benefits for graffiti artists, which is another factor that could contribute to the popularity of tagging the abutment.

“People come into the Georgetown area because they’ve heard that it’s kind of easy online,” said Matt. “People write about it and people post pictures about it and write about how easy it is. A lot of other D.C. spots are less publicized, because the artists that are D.C. and local have to really fight for it, so that newcomers and people that are really experienced in the area, you know, don’t have to work as hard to get there.”

As more high-profile graffiti artists stake their claim to prime real estate, the C&O Canal maintains its local reputation as a haven for amateur tags and murals. For those who grow up in the area, it has become tantamount to an institution—close enough to hang out, and just on the law enforcement’s periphery.

“All the Georgetown kids, all the people who grew up there, have been doing the same shit for over 15 years,” said George. “I still drive by Canal Road, and I still see kids hanging out by the aqueducts. That’s what’s amazing to me, is that shit hasn’t been fucking closed off.”

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