A bead rattled at the bottom of Peter Chen's aerosol can, mixing up the red paint. It was music to his ears. Chen pressed the nozzle and unleashed a series of swooping red lines across the white wall of a Fitzhugh Hall common area. After finishing the outline, he sprayed orange for dimension and blue and black for the fill. Two hours and four cans of paint later, Chen had covered 10 feet of wall with the word "Peach" and given the dorm's first-year residents a piece of art for their living space.
"Peach" is Chen's graffiti alias, his "tag." It's the name that he uses to sign all of his art and mark it, somewhat anonymously, as his own.
It's not that he's looking to hide from anyone. Chen (Engr '13) is quick to distinguish between his art, which he places only in approved locations, and vandalism. He had permission from the housing administration to paint the Fitzhugh common area; the building will be torn down to make way for new Alderman Road dormitories, and the students have painted a few U.Va.-themed murals on its walls.
When he paints, Chen participates in a long-standing University tradition. Students have been painting public spaces on and around Grounds for more than a century.
They scrawled sports scores across the train trestle at 14th Street and University Ave. on the Corner, a practice that began shortly after the trestle was built in 1901. Student society symbols—7s, Zs and IMPs—adorn many academic buildings and student residences. In 1926, the student newspaper College Topics documented the first painting of Beta Bridge, noting that students had splashed bright green paint over the city-owned railroad bridge on Rugby Road. Students began painting Beta Bridge more regularly in the late 1960s.
Now, the bridge's appearance changes nearly every day, with students painting birthday messages to friends, advertising an on-Grounds charity event or stating political opinions.
Trevor Kemp (Engr '06, '13) documents the ever-changing face of the bridge on his photography blog, Beta Bridge (Almost) Daily and sees the bridge as a "forum" for students. "It's an expression of the collective conscience of the University, and it's unique. I don't know of any other place that has something like this."
Other student groups, such as the Aerosol Art Club, bring graffiti to other areas on Grounds. Chen established the club in 2009 as a community where students interested in aerosol art can develop painting techniques and, through artful and legal placement of the paint, champion graffiti as a legitimate form of artistic expression.
Aerosol Art Club members always ask permission to paint a space—if they can't paint a wall, they paint large boards.
Fire hydrant near Beta Bridge Unexpected but artful graffiti "gets people's attention," says Zaina Natour (Col '14). Natour maintains a website, Graffiti on Grounds, that showcases everything from Sharpie messages to stencils. "Every time I think there isn't any more left, I find more. People are actively out there" creating, she says, and students are on the lookout for more.
While Chen and other aerosol artists favor the freedom of a large wall and cans of paint, other artists at U.Va. choose a different approach—stencils have been popping up all over Grounds, on the back side of Beta Bridge, under stairwells in the art building and on small billboards. An artist painstakingly plans and cuts an elaborate, usually small, stencil at home, but once the stencil is cut, the image can be placed quickly again and again.
Natour is particularly interested in stencils and has even made a few herself. She says stencils are often political, like one featuring Thomas Jefferson and the word "OBEY" that has appeared in a few spots around Grounds this year. She overhears students pondering its meaning whenever they walk by. "It's really clever," she says, and it could be about so many different things here at U.Va.
Beta Bridge Chen, Kemp and Natour hope that fellow students will continue to paint and document art in the future. The Aerosol Art Club isn't large enough to be recognized as an official student group this year; Kemp is finishing his master's degree and hopes someone will take over his blog when he leaves town. Natour has another year of classes, but she knows that the graffiti will continue long after she walks the Lawn.
Graffiti artists agree that the purpose of their work is to make people think, to start a conversation about art, its creators and its environment. For more than 100 years, artists on Grounds have found untouched space or painted over older messages to spark new topics for discussion. "There are all of these layers of paint" on Beta Bridge and elsewhere, says Kemp, "and as soon as [a message] gets painted over, it's gone. But it's not really, because it's still there, underneath. Each layer holds a story."
"Obey" (left); banana peel on a crosswalk (right)
Clockwise from top: Stencil art is frequently the method of choice for many graffiti artists; "Abide"; Darth Vader stencil on the Corner
Clockwise from top left: Beta Bridge; The Yellow Journal; "Dirty Harry" stencil; "Gnome" stencil