Today I’ll be outside at City Hall delivering comments on a hot topic in Takoma Park: what is graffiti?
tl;dr: All of us getting outside during covid led to a fight between me and my small Maryland city about what is graffiti vs. community art. It’s still going. What we want is a City process to to figure this out for future projects.
I took my Covid frustrations out on invasive and non-native plants, yanking up many trash cans worth of English ivy and grass, and creating a tree trunk climbing course on one side of my corner property in Takoma Park (a small city on Metro’s red line, hugging the border of Washington D.C.). To read about how we ended up painting a rainbow’s worth of native plants in a teen-created mural, check out this companion piece.
My neighbor Sarah wanted to use “my” portion of a new sidewalk on the other side of my property to create an obstacle course for her daughters and others. I loved the idea. (The city had just cancelled plans for a $25K professional mural and was understandably focusing on covid response instead.)
Go for it, I said.
She showed up with a tube of green acrylic paint and…
I didn’t realize how much I’d benefit from passing kids and families exclaiming with laughter and joy. “Do it again!” floated up to my screen porch as I WFH’d during the first summer of the pandemic.
I got undue credit for the simple brilliance of the course. (I was also — secretly — so grateful my offspring were teenagers during that quarantine. I didn’t have to usher small kids outside for exercise multiple times per day.)
Free joy for all. It had developed naturally — like a plant. No complaints.
Various mask and gathering requirements floated around in 2020 but generally, outdoor, distanced interaction like ours was deemed safest. I applauded Sarah, a public health professional, for her vision, and gave her credit whenever possible for what we called the “movement sidewalk.”
In the spring of 2021, kids were still unvaccinated and the original green paint was barely visible, so kids were asking about repainting plans. I reached out to my local elected official, to see what approval we could get, for more movement markings, and maybe a native plants mural?
We can’t, my Ward 2 councilperson shrugged.
“Any painting is technically graffiti, and we don’t have a way to do these kinds of projects.”
I asked what the consequence would be if I just did it. If it just appeared.
She said as long as no one complained, it couldn’t be considered graffiti.
I decided to get the community involved, to minimize the chances of complaint. I took requests from kids on what they wanted to see next (someone suggested Planets, which took the place of Hot Lava).
We solicited leftover latex house paints (free!) from the TkPk Buy Nothing group, and it got really colorful the second time around:
We recruited a former neighbor, Indigo, who grew up next door on Lincoln, to design a hopscotch in their old front sidewalk, for the current kids to enjoy. It hopscotched a seed’s journey growing and turning to fungi! Read Indigo’s statement (below) about the artistic freedom and LGBTQ+ safety they felt on the project.
I also asked two teenage artists (sisters Zahra and Hanan) down our block if they would design and execute a “Proud Native Plants” mural with indigenous Mid-Atlantic flowers in a rainbow pattern.
Since we started re-painting on June 19th, 2021 (on Juneteenth, the same year it was designated a federal holiday), we created an honorific Long Jump, where every distance is actually the number “19” written in a different language. We only accepted language additions from passers-by who were fluent or native, and ended up with Amharic, Mandarin, Portuguese, Arabic, French, Croatian, Greek, Spanish, English, German, and more…
I’m especially proud of the yoga chakra rainbow, created by Victoria Wolfgang (@diary.of.a.yogi). As a registered yoga teacher, I love seeing people actually practicing these on the sidewalk…
Before you know it, it was spring 2022. I was nominated for an “Azalea Award” (our little city’s do-gooder honor) mostly for all this kids’ movement infrastructure.
At the same time, the teen artists added gay/trans pride flags to our “Proud Native Plants” mural. They recruited local art students to add the Maryland state insect (Baltimore Checkerspot) and native fungi (Lemon yellow Lepiota). We added beneficial pollinators like bumblebees and ladybugs, and a native fern. There is a mix of art “talent” on the wall but it’s all colorful and thematic.
I also felt we should re-paint the sidewalk again, since the markings were disappearing. In June, I posted to a city Facebook group that, since the paint was worn, we’d be sprucing the planets and re-doing the long jump (and therefore needed red paint and multiple language speakers). Whoops. Shouldn’t have trusted an interactive community treasure on the evil empire.
For the first time in over two years, we received one complaint.
Here’s what that one Facebook post and conversation set in motion:
June 12: my Facebook post about re-painting, to which a neighbor asked whether I had a permit and did our elected officials know about this project? Then he brought up some interesting free-speech points, and I responded to it all, but little did I know what that would set in motion. (I’m not allowed to post things from a private group on Facebook, so I can’t share the exact back and forth). We basically agreed that community processes are best for public / shared resources. However in this case, there is no permit to be had, so we made the process up with the immediate community as we went.
June 15: I get an email from Code Enforcement, which it turns out is a police department(?) — saying “we have received complaints regarding the paintings on the sidewalk and retention wall…” with the full Montgomery County property maintenance code.
June 17: i get a knock on the door from Rick Baravechia, TkPk Police #8454, Neighborhood Services Team Supervisor, referencing an email on graffiti (what graffiti?) have I read it yet? (nope) so we read through it together. I immediately requested an exemption, as per the final section:
F. Exemption. This section shall not be construed to prohibit temporary, easily removable chalk or other water soluble markings on public or private sidewalks, streets or other paved surfaces which are used in connection with traditional children’s activities, such as hopscotch and the like, nor temporary, easily removable chalk or water soluble markings used in connection with any lawful business or public purpose or any City-approved public art project or activity. (Ord. 2013–25 § 1, 2013/Ord. 2003–24 § 4 (part), 2003: prior code § 6–306
June 17: i send out an email update to neighbors, informing them of city dispute in case they want to stand back. They all express support.
June 19: Summer solstice party. I Google about latex paint and “water soluble” and, turns out, that is a broad category, so we fit the definition for exemption.
June 21–22: I exchange 3 emails & maps w/ Ali Khalilian, City Engineer regarding private/public line of property (still uncertain where it lies).
June 27: visit from Timothy Gratton, TkPk Police #8461, Neighborhood Services Team, who photographs entire sidewalk and mural and tells me if TkPk ends up power washing it, they’ll likely outsource but they’ll definitely send me the bill.
June 27: while I’m on vacation, I get a Notice of Violation (“Graffiti”) & exchange emails with Rick who is trying to set up a meeting about it. There is no process outlined in the city statute for applying for an Exemption, so I made a comment board with the 9-page email stapled to it; it attracted mostly support for the exemption (and a few anonymous NOs):
On July 5, the deadline for action in my Notice of Violation, I get a visit from Rick and David Eubanks, the head of Housing and Community Development, who promises to report back to Jamal Fox.
Summary of our convo:
- As of July 1, enforcement of property maintenance codes (and perhaps all of Neighborhood Services Team?) has been transferred from TkPk Police to Housing and Community Development. So David is now Rick’s boss. (I can’t help but wonder — is this moving nonviolent code enforcement out of the Police budget responding to “defund the police” demands?)
- David and Rick came to inform me that the City considers this graffiti because the markings aren’t “temporary” enough. I said temporary was relative, and the statute didn’t define it. The statute DOES define water soluble (check) and children’s activities (check).
- David said what we’d created wasn’t the “intent” of the exemption, which was meant for kids’ chalking hopscotch. I said we literally have hopscotch, and that chalk is hard to see on a light sidewalk. The intent of the graffiti code is clearly stated in section A (it pertains to property value).
(I’d pointed to the printed-out language describing “Intent,” in section A: “Graffiti on public and private property is a public nuisance and a blighting factor which deteriorates property and depreciates the value of the affected property, as well as the adjacent and surrounding properties.”)
- I asked what the process was for applying for an Exemption, and he said there was none, the city just decides if it meets the standard or not. I said that our project meets the standard AS WRITTEN, and asked about a hearing. He said one would be set up, and that I would be able to present evidence of support (like my board and neighbor letters) at the hearing. We also mused that Takoma Park COULD change the exemption language or graffiti definition, which is currently rubber stamped from Montgomery County.
- I asked him if he knew about the 9th Amendment to the Constitution (and admitted that I hadn’t until the day prior, listening to This American Life w/ DD) where all powers/rights not explicitly granted in the text of the Constitution return to the people, not the government. Takoma Park, still part of the U.S., governed by the big C, should return the unspoken definitions of “temporary” and “enhance” and “intent” to the citizens, not city staffers.
- I asked about the Uplifting Staircase, and what the status of it is, whether it got an exemption or was considered graffiti. He conferred with Rick and they admitted they didn’t know. (I’ve since interviewed Nancy Illman, the volunteer muralist who spearheaded the multi-year saga of the staircase. Spoiler alert: It’s technically unpermitted guerrilla art, as well, yet it’s widely loved and assimilated into the community.)
- David finally said he understood better, by coming out here and seeing/talking, what the sidewalk and mural was all about. He said that doesn’t mean some of it won’t have to be removed, however. He suggested that maybe there should be a community process for public art projects like these, just like there is a process for new sidewalks (oh, we remember!) where petition signatures are gathered in support and the community has to meet about it.
WHICH WOULD BE HUGE. IT WOULD BE POLICY CHANGE. Much better than a one-off “exemption.
Too bad David didn’t tell me that the City Council has to do that change, not Housing and Community Development. I concurred that an approvals process would be great! I commended David for listening, for being solution-oriented, and for having empathy for the vast majority of people whose art/movement/joy is constricted by people who got riled on Facebook.
David asked me to agree to “continue the conversation with the City” about this project. I agreed! I am always up for conversation about public art, kids movement, and community joy. Again, if only he had told me that he can’t make a process for community art like they have a process for sidewalks.
On July 7, I delivered neighbors’ letters of support to his office. He said he’d try to get this done “very soon.” However, it took nearly two months after the initial violation date to respond to my request for an exemption and/or a hearing.
On August 3, a satirical site run by a Silver Spring guy, writes an article attempting to lampoon the situation, which refers to me as “Petal Blossom Davis” (I appreciate good humor but this really wasn’t their best effort):
After receiving the violation notice on June 27, we held off from re-painting all summer, to not poke the bear. We didn’t re-paint the Long jump or the Race course or the Twirl/breathe or the Pollen word search or the Sun.
For my part, I entered the modern era and supplemented our wooden board with a Google form and a QR code and started collecting comments / signatures for the sidewalk.
I just got the letter from HCD on Wednesday August 24, yes, it’s officially considered graffiti, no, we don’t get an exemption, nope, no hearing either because it’s public property. The city will show up to powerwash it and will send me the bill. (Why me, if it’s public property?) If I don’t pay I get a lien.
Now David says the City Council is the target to change procedures or policies.
Today August 26, at noon, Molly and I are delivering to City Hall 100+ supportive signatures and comments to City hall. Council is on recess but we want to deliver these comments before Monday’s deadline to act.
Again, for the backstory on the mural and the teen art project check out this companion piece on Medium about our #proudnativeplants effort on the wall.
The comments below are straight from the Google form (updated as of Sunday night Aug 28), including the whopping TWO negative anonymous comments that happen to echo the two dudes who attack this on social media and then accuse me of being the bully.
Whatevs. Not everyone can recognize — or create, or share — joy.
I hope some of Takoma’s city council and mayoral candidates can.
Sending *empathy* *gratitude* & yes, even native *petal blossoms*
THE REST OF THIS PIECE IS UNEDITED COMMENTS from the form: (All are connected to actual people with names and emails, except the two, can you find them?)
This is a terrific project that has been an asset to the neighborhood. It has provided hours upon hours of fun for kids.
This is a source of joy!
The children’s games and flower/planet murals have inspired much fun and education.
Our family loves and appreciates the art and thoughtfulness that goes into making a welcoming space for our neighbors!
The movement sidewalk is a joy to walk along. It adds life to the neighborhood!
Beautiful that this interactive art was shared with the community during COVID. It would be ideal to have a (not too cumbersome) process that solicits and approves art like this so that many voices/ types of art can be integrated, and a maintenance plan.
We walk on Lincoln daily and our children love playing on the movement sidewalk. It gives them something to look forward to when we take our dogs out for a walk. I am very upset to hear that something that has brought our family joy is being labelled as graffiti.
A wonderful mural created by children in the community
I live up the street. We want this. Who has a problem should get a life
The Lincoln Ave. movement sidewalk has brought much joy to our family during the pandemic. We really value it, want it to stay, and would love to see other similar projects throughout the TkPk neighborhood.
I totally support this kind of community artwork.
We love the movement sidewalk and we hope the city will allow it to stay! This is the type of activity we should be encouraging.
The movement sidewalk, murals, and such are part of what makes Takoma Park, Takoma Park. If I wanted boring neighborhood sidewalks and walls, I’d live somewhere with an HOA.
Susan is a great community builder!
Keep Takoma Park Special!
We love the mural!
We live nearby on Lincoln and think these are a colorful and delightful presence — definitely not graffiti!
We love this art and it was such a really welcomed addition to our neighborhood during peak Covid
Thanks for helping bring joy into the world! :)
I love it
This sidewalk brings joy to our multi-generational household!
I love this art. It’s beautiful and educational.
Avenues for creativity are necessary because creativity is imperative for learning and safe expression.
This has brought a lot of joy to the community. Other paintings and murals throughout Takoma Park have been completed and still remain in tact.
This is a blight on our neighborhood and Susan’s complete disregard for following proper procedures is appalling. (anonymous)
I appreciate the mural’s contribution to art in the neighborhood and the inclusive and well-intentioned spirit it represents. Thank you to its thoughtful creator for enhancing the community.
The sidewalk on Lincoln is a source of great joy to me and my multigenerational household. I even take out of town guests to see it. It’s part of what makes Takoma Takoma
Thanks for helping make the neighborhood fun for kids!
I live on Lincoln and I love walking past this mural daily. It’s inspiring, educational and colourful — a gift to our community!
Let’s support community art and design the processes to do so. Vote out our City Government. Vote in truly progressive and WOKE, politicians and administrators such as Marc Elrich. Graffiti is an internationally recognized Art Form; TYRANNY, and the suppression of free speech is not!
I live near this block and frequently walk by. It always brings a smile to my face and even as an adult I enjoy skipping through the course!
Born and raised in Takoma Park. The Movement Sidewalk IS Takoma Park, in art. It should stay.
Please save this beautiful and inspirational sidewalk and mural!
The City should reverse this ridiculous and regressive ruling and embrace citizens who are working to improve and build community engagement and joy! Takoma Park likes to rest on its historical progressive laurels but the actions of some of the City staff/electeds/ citizens tell a different story of a conservative, constrictive and unpleasantly conventional city.
Marking the movement sidewalk as “graffiti” goes against the very Zeitgeist of Takoma Park! Please reconsider!! I live on Boyd Ave and have often walked this sidewalk on Lincoln. I find the art to be inspirational/motivating and engaging for our community. Furthermore, the artists have been responsible in their choice of materials (water soluble paint, etc). I am in favor of this remaining in place!It fits in with the Takoma Park culture, please do not force removal
What I love about Takoma Park is that it doesn’t stifle the creativity and community joy of its residents in the way that many other municipalities do. I appreciate the art, colorful houses, and other little sources of beauty I see around the city every day. I would be sad to see a part of that go away.
Susan’s art is a contribution to our community that should be appreciated. Please do not remove it.
The Lincoln Ave art brings much brightness, joy and creativity to the neighborhood. I’ve lived around the corner on Elm for 20+ years and love this artwork!
It’s nice and not harmful.
My kids love visiting the obstacle course- they’ve learned about the planets and local plants from asking questions. My two year old literally woke up talking about it today
I love it. It was a life saver for bored kids during Covid.
My two-year old loves this mural and we would be so sad to see it go!
I love it and it reflects the vibrant culture that is tkpk.
This project brought people in and around the neighborhood together to create something beautiful. There was a lot of planning and learning involved for the young people who took part in the project. Neighbors got to know each other better while creating something that brings joy, especially to children. I think we’d all agree that not all images are appropriate for public places. However, these pictures are lovely and cheerful: carefully painted brightly colored flowers and games that delight children and lift the spirits of most people who walk by. It would be very sad for the young people who contributed if the mural is destroyed. It seems to me that it would send a rather gloomy and disheartening message both to the kids and to those of us who feel a bit more light hearted and optimistic each time we go by. There are similar side walk paintings around Takoma Park that are colorful and carefully drawn — they all brighten my day.
Our daughter very much enjoyed the movement sidewalk during the pandemic
There is similar ”graffiti” on the sidewalk at the Library and on other locations.
The city arts org issued a call to artists in late 2019 for mural ideas along the new Lincoln Ave retaining wall and then they dropped the ball. This is the result -a creative homeowner stepped up!
The native plants and sidewalk are by my house and they bring color and delight to our neighborhood!
Why is the City devoting taxpayer resources to policing children’s sidewalk art? Even if the sidewalk art were construed as graffiti, which appears questionable at best, this is a poor use of City resources. As a Takoma Park resident and taxpayer, I object to this waste. Leave the sidewalk art alone.
Takoma Park is unique. Our community generally celebrates quirkiness, creativity, and artistic expression — we should not be writing nor enforcing laws that do away with these. If people want to live in a place free of community art, flyers, political statements, and a general sense of fun, they can move someplace with an HOA that keeps everything looking identical and bland. Takoma Park is a place where diversity is embraced.
I’m not a child, but the Lincoln Ave movement sidewalk always cheers me up as I run on that steep section of sidewalk, especially when it’s hot. Thank you for brightening our neighborhood.
This is a neighborhood asset. It’s a misguided effort to try removing it.
I live on Boyd Avenue and pass by the sidewalk frequently. I am not offended or opposed by the activity center vibe on this sidewalk. The focus should be on the Carroll bridge, which is covered in actual graffiti.
What the hell is happening when the City of Takoma Park fails to award an exemption for this beautiful addition to Lincoln Avenue? In my 23 years here I’ve never been so let down by my city government. I am one pissed off citizen!
My children ask to go to this area every time we walk to Sligo or to town. It’s absolutely not graffiti. The city of tkpk has too much time on their hands if this is happening! Maybe they should have built the worlds ugliest cement wall on our street!
I live on the block and love that it brings some joy to the gray sidewalk.
I live directly across the street from this mural and look at it everyday. It makes me smile and it’s been wonderful to see kids and adults alike enjoying it. It has brought brightness to a plain concrete slab.
This greatly enhances the neighborhood. Get over it please!
Can’t see a single harm that results from this fun art project.
It makes Takoma park more beautiful.
The movement sidewalk is awesome and adds cheerful character to the city!
Why is this a big deal?! It brings joy to people during incredibly hard times. Just let the mural and movement sidewalk stay!
I live nearby. My children love it and it was a particular community service during COVID closures.
Keep Takoma Park colorful
I appreciate the staircase and sidewalk art project and would like for the city to find a way to support not discourage such community activities.
We used to live on Jackson Ave in Takoma Park and frequently walked up Lincoln to burn off some puppy and kid energy. My son absolutely loved this mural and engaged with it every single time we walked past. The joy on his face as he did the lava jumps, sprints and other activities was priceless. It saved us during the pandemic when everything was shut down and there was no where to go. To think that such a special, grassroots, neighbor-supported area could be taken down makes me incredibly sad and angry at the city. Leave the sidewalk alone and focus on bigger issues!
I think it looks trashy, and using house paint seems unsafe for the environment. If you can find a safer paint or other medium to use, contain it to a smaller area, and engage the entire street not just you friends/people on Facebook, then I’d support it. (anonymous)
The sidewalk obstacle course and mural on Lincoln brightens up our community.
And finally, a statement by one of the artists; I have permission to share:
I am a Queer young person that used to live on Lincoln Ave. before moving elsewhere in Takoma Park. I was invited to work on the first iteration of the mural by Susan, and came over multiple days to work on it. I’ve never considered myself particularly good at art, but Susan and the other artists working with me encouraged me, telling me that the most important thing when creating art like this is to have fun with it.
As many young people do, I had spent a good portion of my summer inside, looking at my computer. This project gave me an opportunity to spend hours outside, and helped me reconnect with the part of myself that loved the outdoors. I think it’s important for young people like myself to experience opportunities like this, where creativity and activities outdoors are not met with regulation.
The other reason I saw this as such a formative experince was the fact that Susan cultivated an unapologetically Queer space for the artists. As much as I am at home in my own Queerness, the world is still a dangerous and harrowing place for those of us who are Queer, espically those who are trans such as myself, unfortunately even in this town. I felt safe when making this. I hope when passersby look at the rainbow of flowers and the pride flags on the wall, they feel like Takoma Park might be a safe space for them as well. Myself and the other artists used our hands to create this, this is us speaking up, saying something meaningful. Please, do not drown out our voices.”