I’ve written about graffiti and vandalism before, but now its national news. As reported by Modern Hiker, a New York woman is vacationing in National Parks in the western United States and vandalizing them with graffiti. Thanks to social media and narcissism she’s recorded her crimes on Instagram, and thus allowed people to track her. Since this story broke she’s closed her Instagram account, which in an age where anything on the Internet stays there strikes me as closing the barn door after the horses got out. Reddit has more on her, including the claim her ‘art’ shows up regularly on hiking trails in the Catskills. I won’t mention her name or include photos of her graffiti, since she obviously craves attention. If you want to know her name or see the vandalism, click on the link to Modern Hiker above. The National Park Service, thanks to Reddit, is aware of the crime, and their press release is here.
I’d like to think this sick woman is a fluke, and her vandalism an unfortunate but singular event. But its not. The New York Times reported vandalism is up in parks nationwide, and I’ve seen more and more damage to parks and natural areas. I linked to St. Peter’s Village above. But Pole Steeple was scribbled on when I was there this May, and I’ve seen vandalism in other places too. Again, if you want to see it, follow one of the links provided. I won’t show the crime in this post.
Its tempting to say graffiti is a modern problem, and to pin it to some cause or failing of society. But the defacing of natural wonders has always been with us. The image to the right is Glen Onoko Falls, located outside Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, as it appeared in Lippencott’s Magazine in 1872. The author of the accompanying article wrote, “But the glen is as wild as it is picturesque, and to see it requires both a good deal of muscle and perseverance. It has never been “improved” even to the extent of a footpath, and the visitor might fancy himself the first to have entered it if it were not for evidences to the contrary borne by prominent places where a couple of idiots have scrawled their names in white paint.” The author went on to ask forgiveness for wishing the vandals tossed down the 100 foot falls. He’s not the only person to have such thoughts.
The problem of graffiti in natural areas isn’t just the actual defacement, its also one of access. As you know, our motto is The Outdoors is for Everyone. But graffiti spray paints in the face of that phrase. It makes the outdoor world, our shared place of wonder and amazement, restricted by the territory marking of a paint can. Suddenly its not ours, its the vandal’s.
Also such damage is a powerful weapon for people who would restrict access, making the outdoors be just for the few. Last year I was in an online argument with two fellow outdoor people, both of them arguing for restricted access to natural places because “crowds cause graffiti.” I pointed out vandals cause vandalism, not crowds, and said they were quoting the same arguments property holders always use against opening parks or rail trails.
Access also gets restricted when the managers of the park need to repair such damage, as for example Joshua Tree National Park, where part of the park was closed in February because of extensive graffiti. Parks live on limited budgets, and money is scarce day to day. Its easier and cheaper to shut down part of the park to stop future damage than to restore it. So the woman defacing parks with her piddling scribble isn’t just saying “I was here”, she’s saying “you can’t be here.” Our argument against graffiti isn’t just that it damages the natural world, its that it says The Outdoors is for Some People, Not All.
One of the parks the woman defaced is Yellowstone. I’ll end with another quotation from the nineteenth century. This is from an 1886 book, The Wonders of Yellowstone, and the author’s words describe why it was set aside as the first National Park, and why vandalism has no place in it. “It is the wildness and grandeur of the enclosing mountain scenery, and still more the curious, beautiful, wonderful and stupendous natural phenomena which characterize the region, that have raised it to sudden fame, and caused it to be set apart by our national government as a grand national play-ground and museum of unparalleled, indeed incomparable, marvels, free to all men for all time.” Aside from saying “free to all people”, I’d not change a word.