This piece originally ran on May 7, 2014. We’re republishing it on Columbus Day because Jonny Grave ‘discovered’ something that’s been there for a long time. -ed.
By Jonny Grave
I’m falling over the rocks that support the foundation of the freeway overhead. I’m running my hands over decade-old Krylon. My camera flashes brilliance into the dark, milliseconds at a time. What I am doing is extremely dangerous, and extremely illegal.
It’s curious to think how a place like this survives– One of the reasons it’s stayed alive for so long is the silence the writers and taggers keep. Another reason it’s still around is eventually, on a long enough timeline, someone slips the secret. As an individual who has an unabashed affinity for hidden places, I’m usually banking on someone letting the proverbial cat out of the bag.
Hours before my descent into the underbelly of DC’s southwest quadrant, I was shooting the throw-up art in the skatepark, just south of Garfield Park. Completely unlike the planned park in Shaw, the Garfield skatepark is a haphazard gathering of funboxes, quarter-pipes, ramps, and rails. Every corner of the skatepark’s components is covered in graffiti
I had a conversation with Matt, who used to frequent the park back in the 90’s. He’s now back in town after a 12-year absence. A job and a girl brought him back from Seattle to DC. Both the job and the girl fell through the floor, so now he’s fixing bikes and getting back to his roots. I asked about the turn-over time for the art on the walls, and how fast it changes. He tells me it doesn’t take long at all for the writers to get bored, and make something new. He also told me that if i like this stuff, I should go see the Wall of Fame.
“Get to the wharf, go through the tunnel, go up the ramp, hang right into the lot, hop the fence.” Those were his instructions. I would have pressed him for more detailed directions, but he gave me a look that said “I really shouldn’t be telling you this, you know.”
The Wall of Fame is an Amtrak tunnel that passes underneath the Bureau of Engraving. That means I’m not only trespassing on Amtrak property, but I’m directly under government property, which I imagine could only exacerbate my consequences if I’m caught. These are things I try to not think about when I go for these adventures. I like to think of it as free-spirited adventurism. I’m sure the Metropolitan Police Department, the Amtrak security guards, and the Department of Homeland Security would see it as something different.
There’s a beautiful silence in this place, not unlike the silence you’d hear in the National Gallery of Art. Every wall has paint, every column has a name, or a tag, or a caricature. And they’re from as far back as the mid 90’s. Some of the writers had the good sense to date their work when it went up.
Further research tells me that this place has been in a slow decline since September 11th. I’ve seen security measures change pretty drastically in this city. I imagine the stack of security cameras at the far end of the tunnel would deter some of the writers from continuing to contribute.
There was, however, a piece that said a lot about the place– a monstrous green and pink burn, stretching maybe seven feet wide. What was most fascinating was that it was clearly unfinished. Large-scale works usually require several layers of sketches, outlines, and shadings. This one had the bare-bones framework, but was far from done. Either the writer stopped halfway through this piece to go home and think about it, or had to ditch to avoid the cops. Or possibly got caught…
This is something that we rarely get to see in a place like the National Gallery. Here is someone’s masterpiece, still in a chrysalis. Here is a hall of works, always changing, always in progress. I doubt security cameras will slow it down.