Spray Cans and Stereotypes

This is one of the first legal pieces done at Carrie along the 400-foot wall designated for graffiti. It features the iconic logo of Rivers of Steel in the center. 


Spray Cans and Stereotypes

Museum Studies Intern at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area - Spring 2016

Click. Click. Click. Shhhhhh.

The shadow watches as a single stream of black spray paint shoots from the nozzle. Shaking the can softly again, the ball mixing the paint rattles encouragingly to continue. One hand steadies the canister while the other shakes slightly in nervousness. Just a few more lines…done. The writer flings the can into their opened back pack before trailing back through the moonlit trees in front of the Carnegie Library.

What image did you create as you pictured the scene? If you were being completely honest, who in your mind’s eye is the culprit of the vandalism to your library? Is he a teenager with too much time on his hands? Is he a rowdy youngster, craving recognition that his parents just don’t provide? Is it a destructive gang member out to create a disruption in their mundane, mainstream environment to prove a point for his or her buddies? Whether we like it, acknowledge it, or bother to care, our prejudices and pre-conceived notions of the graffiti writer influence us and our perceptions of their art. Who is this invisible individual leaving a trail of paint drips, words, and images?

This sad, yin and yang eyed face reveals that the writer is aware of his transgression. (see above image) Ironically, he acknowledges that a spray paint can in hand may not adequately relieve him or provide him with what he is after. Yet another scrawl is located close by: “I wish I were a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”[1]

Now unless you are a poetry guru, you would have never known that these lines were taken from a T.S. Eliot poem. In this simple black scribble, we are confronted with our artist who is certainly no desperately bored teen seeking a temporary thrill. This piece is charged with meaning, shows intentionality, and demonstrates an appreciation of 20th century poetry, all in a single quote drawn in spray paint. Our artist is aware of his site and the ironic sense the quote carries on the library. It is an internal, deep, and reflective statement. The phrase shows the writer’s heightened conscientiousness in wishing to express ideas of independence, freedom, and power. In a single scrawl, previous biases are washed away. This piece encapsulates graffiti’s many provocations. What I am interested in, not only as an Art History student but also as a Psychology major, is if and how stereotypes and notions of graffiti play into how people experience viewing graffiti.

It is at the unexpected spot of Carrie Furnace in Pittsburgh where I have found graffiti flourish alongside these questions and thoughts. Carrie stands—her huge, gaping, and rusting exterior—against the serene backdrop of the Monongahela River. For almost 70 years, these blast furnaces produced iron for the Homestead Works and at their peak, were producing almost 1250 tons of iron a day. The site was left empty in 1978, but once the steel mill workers left, graffiti artists filled their places. Graffiti tags accumulated across pipes, walls, and the precarious peaks of the furnaces. In 2010 however, the historical preservationist organization Rivers of Steel claimed ownership of the site.

Yet, the graffiti scene continued to prosper once Rivers of Steel realized that the colorful murals were attracting visitors to the industrial wonderland of Carrie. A 400-foot wall and the interior space of a power house were dedicated for new, and most importantly, legal graffiti developed by talented and art-minded graffiti artists. Ron Baraff, the proponent of the movement says this of the graffiti artists—“They’re coming in here, creating this art, so let’s give them this canvas, and by giving them this canvas and showing them that respect, we can then educate them on what we’re trying to do.”[2]  

The graffiti writers, hipsters, and those interested in their local history aren’t the only visitors however. Returning, finally, are the former steel mill workers who give tours of Carrie. A handful of men dedicate their afternoons to instilling a sense of pride in their listeners as they walk through Carrie’s echoing caverns. They tell of lives threatened by brutal working conditions. They share stories and discuss labor unions. They paint pictures of history that mingle right alongside the painted murals. But, do these two ever collide?

As the workers return to their former place of employment—a place of pride and power—how does the graffiti affect them? As they conduct tour after tour, does the graffiti just fade into the background and become common place? Or does the destruction of a place they identify with so closely enrage them? This month, I have been collecting oral histories from a few of these workers in hopes to understand their views as either supporters or rejecters of the graffiti. We are all participating in a past history of steel while simultaneously crafting the history of a future that challenges former notions of graffiti and its creator. 


[1] “Pittsburgh 360: Carrie Furnace Art.” WQED video, 6:51. October 17, 2013. http://www.wqed.org/tv/watch/?sid=574&series=4

[2] “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Poetry Foundation, accessed April 1, 2016, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/173476