In 1976, the editors of the Ohio University yearbook found inspiration in a tradition of Ohio University life that still lives strong: the Graffiti Wall.
"Whatever the message, whenever the change, the graffiti wall offers a kaleidoscope for everyone," yearbook editor Sue Koch wrote in a short essay. "Perhaps in your heart lurks the hope that someday a message will appear that pertains directly to you."
Who knew that the wall she was describing then — a retaining wall at the top of Richland Avenue — would weather not just rain and snow, but also hundreds of messages and gallons of paint, and evolve into such a beloved student tradition?
Students have painted everything on this wall: marriage proposals, advertisements for campus events, scores of games and even an occasional invitation to weekend parties.
"Writing on the wall [is] almost like a rite of passage," says Elizabeth Donahue Huber, AB '86, the managing editor for the 1986 yearbook, which had an "Off the Wall" theme dedicated to the Graffiti Wall. "Everyone felt compelled at some point during their OU career to write on it."
A cherished tradition
Today what has been called either the "Graffiti Wall" or sometimes just the "Wall" refers to three small walls located behind Bentley Hall on Richland Avenue.
"It is so nice to see that out in late fall people will be out there with their hot chocolate and thermoses wearing gloves and hats, painting the wall," says assistant dean of students Char Kopchick, who has helped many student groups get their message out on the Wall. "It is one of those memories many students have when they graduate."
The paintings themselves aren't the only intriguing aspect of the Wall; the competition to paint the Wall — and see how long a painting lasts before being painted over — adds an element of excitement to the experience.
"I worked 23 hours doing the whole wall and finished at 4 a.m.," recalls Andrew "Ocean" Eiler, BSVC '02. "[I] go home to get a camera and when I come back, some Greek kids had completely washed everything.
"But that was the fun of the Wall. It was a continuing, transforming wall."
While the Wall has been reduced in size over the years, it still stands as a symbol of student expression. Prior to the renovation of Bentley Hall in 2002, the Wall stood about a story tall.
"I think for some people the idea that you could just go up and paint these walls was a big shock," says Will Steinman, BFA '05. As a student, Steinman painted advertisements for the annual university-sanctioned recycling event known as Recyclemania.
The Wall is a regular part of the marketing for the recycling competition, says campus recycling and refuse manager Ed Newman, MS '03. "It is pretty neat that the university allows it to be painted as much as it is," he says. "It's to the university's credit that they let that happen."
As Koch noted in 1976, "If you did it at home as a child you were spanked. If you did it in another town you might be arrested. But in Athens there is one Wall on which you can write without fear of reprisal: The Wall."
Promoting a cause
For many students, "painting the Graffiti Wall" is not just a tradition to cross off the senior year bucket list; it is a vital part of the Ohio University experience.
From the Marching 110 to Student Senate, student organizations find the Graffiti Wall serves an important role in promoting events and at the same time offers a bonding experience for members.
"It's an OU tradition that students should do once," says senior Kyle Triplett, 2011-12 student senate president. "Every time we painted the Wall, whether it [turned out] good or bad, we took pictures next to it to say, 'Hey, look what we did.' "
Student Senate continues the tradition of painting the Wall to promote events such as the annual protest march Take Back the Night and Athens Beautification Day — but undoubtedly, the Wall gets the most use during the Student Senate election season.
Each party paints the Wall on almost a daily basis, with the two parties vying for space and painting over each other's paintings as part of the friendly competition.
"During elections, the Wall is almost like a bragging point because if you aren't on the Wall, it's a big deal," says Triplett, a political science major. "If our wall was up for five or six hours, it was good day.
"It would be painted over the opposing party usually within a few hours — a quick turnover during elections," adds Triplett. "It is really competitive."
(continued on page 5)
A team effort
While graffiti isn't usually a public activity, this sanctioned wall allows students to let loose and express themselves.
"Here we have a place where we can do it, and it is OK, and it is so visible," says senior Emma Clark, who has served on the University Programming Council as the vice-chair of university events and on Student Senate as an at-large senator.
Painting the Wall is a fun team-building activity because it is something out of the ordinary, she says. "You get to view people in a different light."
Senior Michael Reeves had his turn at painting the wall as a way to advertise for the Marching 110's Varsity Band Show in the fall. Reeves served as president of Kappa Kappa Psi, an honorary band fraternity that paints the Wall to promote the annual show.
"It's just a fun time being out with everyone in the chapter that late," Reeves says. "It's just fun to get together and have paint and be a little kindergartner again."
The group goes out a night or two before the show and paints throughout the cold night. Each year, the group picks a theme for the painting; this year they highlighted their "Party Rock Anthem" performance, which went viral on YouTube.
Watch Reeves and other members of the Marching 110 paint the Graffiti Wall in this time lapse video. Video by Mike Zorbas.