Post No (New) Bills – Historic Graffiti in National Parks

Vandalism in national parks is a problem and graffiti is one of the most visible and distracting kinds of vandalism. Unfortunately, evidence of this careless and selfish crime is not an uncommon sight. In 2014, this issue received a wave of attention when the website Modern Hiker reported on the story of Casey Nocket (aka Creepythings). Nocket, from New York, allegedly travelled to a number of national parks in the West and drew pictures and “tagged” natural and cultural resources with acrylic paint, all the while proudly documenting her work on social media. Many were outraged, while she vigorously defended her work as art. As of October 29, 2014 Nocket was named as a suspect in vandalism cases at eight national parks.

Without delving into the Organic Act and the National Park Service mission statement, arguments about cultural patrimony, or the manifold meanings and purposes of art, defacing natural and cultural resources on federal property is illegal. Historic graffiti, on the other hand, has a place among the cultural resources of our national parks. This is not to say that Civil War soldiers’ signatures and self-portraits on the walls of the attic in Arlington House at Arlington National Cemetery can be understood in the same ways as ancient Native American rock art on cliff faces in Big Bend National Park; as protected historic resources they are part of our shared heritage though they tell different stories.

Mammoth Cave National Park

MACA Stephen Bishop graffiti
1842 signature of enslaved Mammoth Cave cave explorer and guide, Stephen Bishop. Photo credit: EH Whitesides.
landrams sax-horn band MACA
1855 graffiti in Mammoth Cave referencing Landram’s Sax-Horn Band. Photo Credit: Tim Connors (NPS Geologic Resources Division).

Visitors to Mammoth Cave National Park can see some examples of historic graffiti preserved on the cave walls such as signatures left by enslaved African American cave explorers and guides like Stephen Bishop and Mat Bransford. There are advertisements for musical acts like Landram’s Sax-horn Band that entertained nineteenth-century visitors in the caverns. These marks, some made more than 160 years ago, add to the significance of the cave as a historic cultural landscape and record the presence of people important to the cave’s history whose stories have until recently gone uninterpreted for the public.

MACA modern cave graffiti
Modern illegal graffiti in Mammoth Cave. Photo Credit: Tim Connors (NPS Geologic Resources Division).

Unfortunately, modern graffiti has also been carved into the walls in Mammoth Cave which “degrades cave surfaces, obscures geologic features, and mask historically significant graffiti,” (Thornberry-Ejrlich 2011). Beyond their poor aesthetic, these illegal inscriptions also negatively impact the cave’s fragile ecology.

 Alcatraz Island, Golden Gate National Recreation Area

this is my land
Entrance to a cell block at Alcatraz shortly after the Indian occupation. Photo Credit: Charles Berta.
alcatraz water tower
Restored Alcatraz water tower with 1969-1971 Indians of All Tribes, Inc. graffiti. Photo Credit: Craig Glassner (NPS).

On November 20, 1969, a diverse group of 80 or so Native American activists collectively calling themselves Indians of All Tribes, Inc. occupied Alcatraz Island for 19 months. The occupation was an act of resistance. Through the Alcatraz Proclamation, the group highlighted what they saw as injustices perpetrated against Native Americans in the past and those ongoing at the time of their occupation. Before being removed by federal marshals on June 11, 1971 they painted slogans on prison walls and doors and the water tower.

When the National Park Service took over as stewards of Alcatraz in 1972, it actively restored parts of the site along with evidence of the Native American take-over, including graffiti. As quoted in a 2010 New York Times article, NPS spokesperson Alexandra Picavet described the water tower graffiti as “the occupation’s most outwardly focused message to the world and…an important part of the island’s history,” (Wollan 2012).

Dry Tortugas National Park

2007 Everglades, Key West, Dry Tortugas vacation
Fort Jeffesron, Garden Key, Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo Credit: John Dengler
Nolan Chapel graffiti
1859 signature of N.L.O Nolan, master bricklayer at Fort Jefferson. Photo credit: Deborah Neyens.

The name of the Irish master bricklayer J. N. O. Nolan can be found etched into several bricks among the 16 million that make up Fort Jefferson on Garden Key at Dry Tortugas National Seashore. His name, accompanied by the date 1859, can be seen in the vaulted ceiling of the brickwork masterpiece known as “The Chapel”. This historic graffiti is the signature of a craftsman whose labor and skill contributed directly to the construction of the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere.

1935 drto etching
1935 etching of cannon on Fort Jefferson terreplein by F. Townsend Morgan. Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

On the fort’s terreplein , several of the Rodman guns have been restored. They were originally cast in 1871 and mounted shortly afterward, though they were never called upon to defend the fort. Clearly iconic, these artifacts are a source a pride to the park and their restoration represents no small investment to conserve these historic objects for the unimpaired enjoyment of future generations. A discerning eye, with the right lighting and angle can make out names and dates etched onto the barrel of one of the guns beneath its shiny black topcoat. This historic graffiti reveals an interesting fact about the several-thousand-pound cannon – it’s upside-down! After conservation, when the cannon was replaced on a mount, it was set top side down. The identity of the person or persons who etched the tags “MICKEY MCMAHON” and “SidneyAK 1926” is unknown. They may have been Spanish-American War soldiers, prisoners, patients under quarantine, perhaps U.S. Navy sailors on a ship docked to replenish its coal supplies. President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated Fort Jefferson as a National Monument on January 4, 1935 and the National Park Service became stewards of the fort as part of Dry Tortugas National Park on October 26, 1992.

DRTO dual cannon contrast 2
“Sidney AK 1926″ (left) and “MICKEY MCMAHON” (right) graffiti on cannon barrel on Fort Jefferson terreplein. Photo Credit: Tim Roberts (NPS)

Dry Tortugas National Park is closer to Cuba than the United States’ mainland. Cuban refugees seeking asylum in America have at times made landfall on islands in the park after crossing the Straits of Florida in makeshift boats called chugs. Removing these vessels to the mainland for disposal can be a challenge for resource managers. Left on shore, these wrecks pose potential health and safety risks for visitors and wildlife. But are the chugs cultural resources? Should they be preserved? Should these ramshackle boats be interpreted as part of the park’s maritime cultural landscape?

Derelict chug on south end of Loggerhead Key. Photo Credit: Tim Roberts (NPS)

Loggerhead Key, the largest and westernmost island in Dry Tortugas National Park, is a common landing site for chugs. When the Loggerhead Key Historic Structure Report was generated in 2009, the boathouse, an integral part of the island’s mid-nineteenth century lighthouse complex and a contributing structure to the resource’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places, was occasionally used to temporarily house Cuban refugees that made landfall on the island (Lord, Aeck, and Sargent Architecture 2009:25). The report shows an example of graffiti left by Cuban refugees on an interior wall of the boathouse. Is this piece of art a cultural resource? Should it be preserved as part of the fabric of a historic structure? Should graffiti by the refugees, scrawled in period of crisis beyond which their fate is uncertain, be interpreted as part of the unique history of human experience in the Dry Tortugas?

Cuban refugee graffiti on the interior wall of the Loggerhead Key boathouse.

National parks are protected places in which to experience and learn about our environment, how we’ve interacted with it and each other, and the ways in which we’ve left our mark on the landscape. We human beings are creative and expressive creatures. As citizens of the United States our constitutional rights guarantee our freedom to act on these qualities within the law. It is every American’s responsibility to be stewards of our shared natural and cultural resources. Federal laws like the Archaeological Resource Protect Act help us in this continuing mission.Please report vandalism in national parks and be a part of preserving these places and all they have to offer, unimpaired for future generations.

Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.

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Lord, Aeck, and Sarget Architecture. 2009. Dry Tortugas National Park. Dry Tortugas Light Station. Lighthouse and Oil House Historic Structure Report. Prepared for Dry Tortugas National Park. Southeast Region, National Park Service.

Thornberry-Ehrlich, T. 2011. Mammoth Cave National Park: geologic resources inventory report. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/GRD/NRR—2011/448. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Wollan, Malia. 2012. “Antigovernment Graffiti Restored, Courtesy of Government.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Dec. 2012. Accessed July 15, 2015.

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