A short walk up Tempe’s Hayden Butte offers hikers a close-up view of manmade symbols that include one giant “A,” 500 ancient petroglyphs — and a seemingly endless amount graffiti.
Now the city is launching its biggest campaign ever against graffiti on the butte with a $56,000 cleanup to eliminate nearly all the vandalism. The project will remove or at least mask the most visible damage that’s been accumulating for decades, though the work could stretch into next year.
The graffiti has gotten much worse recently, said Claire Dean, a conservator who is leading the project. Dean first worked on the butte in the mid-1990s and has noted a large build-up recently. Based in Portland, Ore., Dean surveyed the butte in the fall to understand the project’s scope and returned this week discover graffiti had grown by 20 percent to 30 percent.
“We found graffiti that was dated yesterday the 8th, and the day before, the 7th,” Dean said after completing a survey on Wednesday. “They see other people and they add to it.”
The butte became more accessible to vandals in the 1990s with a new trail that improved access to communications towers at the summit, said Amy Douglass, Tempe’s museum director.
“It’s definitely gotten worse,” she said.
The city has wanted to tackle graffiti for years but only recently got a grant to fund a project. And not just anybody can remove graffiti from rocks that also feature petroglyphs. Dean said she is one of just two conservators in the U.S. that the profession generally recognizes as experts in this type of work.
Some paint will come off with water and a little scraping, while more stubborn paint only comes off with solvents.
“Conservatory works on the idea that you use the least aggressive method first – what will do the least amount of damage – and then work your way up to things that are more aggressive,” she said.
The project includes photographing the graffiti before it’s removed so if future generations spot faded paint on a rock, they can research whether they’re looking at remnants of vandalism or of petroglyphs dating from about 700 to 1450. Most of the damage is near the butte’s summit, where Dean and an assistant will be working while wearing bright orange vests.
The work will stop in March because hot temperatures cause solvents to dry up before paint can be swabbed up. That could lead to paint soaking deeper in the rocks. She’s hesitant to say too much about the solvents she uses for fear people may head to the butte with good intentions but no training.
“If you don’t do it right, you make it worse,” she said.
The city expects Dean will return in the fall or in early 2012 to resume work. Because graffiti tends to attract more graffiti, Dean hopes that clearing as much as possible will deter other potential vandals. That doesn’t happen in every place that removes graffiti, but she said it’s an important starting point to reclaiming damaged public spaces.
“I hope the people get the impression that somebody really does care about this place,” Dean said. “We’ve got to get through to the community that everybody needs to take care of this place.”
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