Bwog respects our heritage/amorous affair by posting each issue of The Blue and White. The latest issue, available this week, has a lot of good stuff: a debate on the relative merits of shaving or not, the history of Columbia’s forgotten post-1968 protests, and a conversation with Improv Everywhere’s Charlie Todd (all available soon on Bwog). From this issue’s cover, Mark Hay explores Columbia’s graffiti sub-culture.
Back in Berkeley, СИЛА (pronounced see-lah, now a Columbia student) was an active tagger. Her Russian nom de guerre could be found stenciled and sprayed throughout the areas she frequented, woven among a tapestry of others. СИЛА was just one member of an active tagging community, composed of supporters, artists, self-promoters, and droves of amateur hipsters toting around spray cans in their messenger bags as part of the “look.” As СИЛА says, “tagging can be used to signify or solicit membership in a particular ‘scene,’” and so should be expected of youths, especially anxious youths searching for an identity—never in short supply at a college. But one will never see a СИЛА tag in even the most remote corners of campus, and rarely find any form of graffiti at all. Columbia is immaculate.
Or at least it is becoming more so. According to Dan Held, Director of Communications for Columbia University Facilities, “In 2010 there were 12 recorded incidents of graffiti on campus.” But as we learned in 2007, at the height of a “graffiti epidemic” on campus covered by The Spectator and on Bwog, most graffiti here is isolated, obscure, and personally directed— think anti-Semitic scrawl on a bathroom door, more than systematic branding. And it all vanishes almost instantaneously. The university’s focus is on keeping the campus pristine—vandalism is handled by facilities, not public safety, and is only reported to the police if it contains a bias incident (racial slur, assault message, etc.).
In Morningside as a whole, the only culture of what is generally called “graffiti”—more specifically “tagging” with a repeated symbol of identity, or “street art” in the case of artistic vandalism—has been pushed deep underground. We cannot see the university as acting entirely independently in its scouring of the campus and the neighborhood; Columbia is mimicking and participating in a larger city-wide movement of graffiti removal. When the City debuted the long-awaited High Line Park in June 2009, it announced its intent to glorify the long-abandoned rail line’s structural aesthetics, staying power, and long history. Although the park design includes a few opportunities for visitors to view the abandoned rails, debris and weeds that once covered the High Line, they will encounter none of the graffiti that once adorned the walls along the tracks. The Graffiti Free NYC paid for the clearing of graffiti from at least twenty buildings in the area before the park was opened. The program, established in 1999, shells out big bucks to remove graffiti from public as well as private estates in the city, even in years of deficit. To the city and the campus, graffiti is de facto blight, all of it unacceptable and juvenile vandalism to be removed unless a private business requests otherwise. According to СИЛА, these “broken window theory”-inspired policies have influenced the social landscape of the city and, indirectly, have made it harder and less socially acceptable to tag at Columbia.
“It totally changes your lifestyle,” she says. “As a tagger, you creep around at night, you explore dark places, you get chased by cops, you permanently have paint on your hands, fingernails, clothes, etc.” СИЛА admits “that sort of lifestyle might not be so conducive to being a successful student at this fine academic institution.”
Aboveground, the visible tagging community in Manhattan has been all but dismantled. Even the most obscure of nooks, once out of sight and out of mind to the city, now come under threat, like the West Side Line tunnel under Riverside Park, known as the Freedom Tunnel because of the large murals painted there by Chris Pape, a.k.a. Freedom, several decades ago. “Unfortunately in the past year,” says Steve Duncan, CC’02 and prolific urban explorer of undercity.org fame, “Amtrak, whose trains run through the tunnel, has been painting over all of those murals along several miles of concrete walls.”
But graffiti is not totally gone from our neighborhood. It has just been pushed below our feet, into those places few of us have access to or the wherewithal to find. As it vanishes from the Freedom tunnel and the subway viaduct—where 1 trains roll into the light at 122nd street—remains an inactive site covered still with decades-old graffiti, all graffiti in Morningside seems to be under attack. Given the difficulty of resisting the crackdown, tagging has become the domain of tunnelers, roofers, urban explorers, those who can gain access to the city below the city, and in Morningisde, the city below Columbia. And as they descend into the legendary “tunnels,” the nature of their endeavor changes and becomes more than “vandalism”; “graffiti”; “tagging”; or “street art.”
As Armin Rosen persuasively suggested in a 20 January 2007 Bwog article, it takes a particular sort of individual to go down into the tunnels—a collection of systems underneath the campus including the remnants of the Bloomingdale asylum, the Manhattan Project, and modern utilities spaces. Before they can leave their mark, they must be ambitious and accomplished urban explorers. Tunnelers’ motives are not mainly promotional in the way СИЛА describes. What promoter would look to advertise their style or brand where few if any will ever see their tag again? The tunnelers are explorers above artists, recorders above promoters, and the tags they leave are distinct—devoid of self- reference, full of coded meaning.
To the uninitiated, this graffiti appears trivial—repeated symbols, hastily scrawled lines of poetry and names with no meaning. But those with a thirst for knowledge decipher these glyphs and read into them a rich history, a record of exploits and the individuals who embarked on them. For those of us with less time, patience or chutzpah than the tunnelers, a guide comes in handy.
The Blue & White Descends
Winding through clattering and hissing pipes and caverns of machinery, casting a wary eye about, Helix quickly crosses a tunnel where security and staff could be lurking. He stops at the path into the off-limits spaces properly known as “the tunnels,” his eye transfixed on one brick in a dark corner. He snakes under a pipe that blocks the corner and then points towards the brick, which sports black, blocky letters: “Benoit.”
“This is why I like Benoit,” says Helix, staring fixated at the brick. “He leaves really simple tags in the most interesting places.”
As Rosen wrote in his Bwog post, taggers like Benoit, Charlemagne, Mouse, AOOAOA, and ADHOC are ubiquitous. They’ve plastered themselves along almost every step one can take, but without ever really promoting themselves, without giving an “I”—lacking a desire to be remembered personally for their talents and exploits. The only exception is ADHOC, the tag of Ken Hechtman who forfeited his anonymity in 1987 when it was discovered that he had used his tunneling skills to extract a lump of depleted Uranium-238 from the Pupin labs (since cleared). But even in the ‘80s, Hechtman, a fairly destructive individual with a chronic allergy for authority, was not the norm. Most Columbia taggers are like Helix.
Helix squeezes through a hole that could not accommodate a man of notable stature (it appears to be the largest hole a sledge hammer wielder could make) and drops down onto a pile of folding and pock-marked torpedoes, which he suspects may be the empty shells of Manhattan Project-era fuel cells. He arrives in the dead dark of a long chamber he believes was once a shooting range and stops at the end of a hand railing. The LED-blue beam of his flashlight catches a familiar scrawl out of the corner of his eye— two winding strands next to the word “HELIX.”
“That’s me,” says Helix. “If you see my tag, it means you’ve gotten somewhere cool.”
Helix’s tags, like many others, are guideposts. Throughout the oldest tunnel system, at major points of egress, like the base of the early-campus staircase, dark and cramped with pipes dripping boiling water onto one’s head (which has been marked with a naming tag: “Mount Doom”), taggers have left a series of clues, cryptic riddles guiding explorers to the most fascinating secrets of the system. At other points, they guide the lost—a small tag by a door in a winding tunnel identifies an exit to Hamilton Hall. In this, they emulate their predecessors, hobo tags. These rough geometric signs, hard to spot unless one knows where to look and now flaking and yellowed along the more accessible tunnels, once carried symbolic messages to the “mole people,” the subterranean homeless population. “Food here,” they once told those in search of a night of sanctuary. “Safety, a place to sleep, floods easily.” The message of signs like those of Benoit serve much the same function, although their audience has a different set of desires.
Turning from the tag indicating Hamilton, Helix stops dead again, his eyes caught by a small, blue arrow just above a tag by Mouse, pointing straight at a wall: “Library Hell.” Helix says it once pointed the way to another system which runs under Butler, Carman, and Lerner. But now the tag points to a wall of plaster with one pipe running through it, exposing a glimpse of one of many lost tunnel systems preserved only in the memory of these tags.
In this act of recording, the taggers are historians. Sometimes they are unintentional record keepers, like the author of “Library Hell” or “TIME”—fittingly one of the oldest taggers (according to Helix) whose signatures live mainly in the bowels of the boiler rooms at the north of campus, faded and sometimes caught behind hot pipes installed long ago and already rusted, which would prevent any hand from tagging there today. Many taggers effectively carbon date the tunnels, marking the switch from coal to steam and a handful of other historical changes, the discovery of which is a treat for the exploring community.
But for many explorers the historical aspect of descending is much more explicit, not just one part of the experience. Helix and several other urban explorers (none of whom knew each other before the writing of this article) speak of a simple urge to be aware of their surroundings—to know what is behind this door and where that tunnel leads. Duncan also identifies a deeper motive: he and all the rest are geeks. Plain and simple—really geeky people willing to drop through a hole in the ground and crawl through rainwater to find something unseen, some link to a history and a culture passed over by everyone else.
Given the historical bent of the tunnels’ main denizens, it should not be surprising that some tunnels have more graffiti than others. The Signature Room, an offset rocky nook under north campus, bears a copy of almost every tag that appears anywhere else in the systems not because it is easy to access, but because it is a record room, a nexus of history. The density of Benoit, Mouse, and Helix tags also increases as one creeps closer and closer to the remains of the Manhattan Project, the old coal hoppers, or the crumbling brick walls of the asylum era. The world the explorers search for, immerse themselves in, and literally become a part of as they write upon its walls is the world of Columbia’s history.
It’s a similar impulse that compels Helix to scrape through every ashtray (presumably left by previous explorers) and check in every cardboard box or other debris that litters the tunnels. “You have to check for signs of habitation,” he says, flipping through cigarette butts. “Sometimes they leave you things—I found a Red Bull down here recently.” He has also found a dollhouse shrine to the Virgin Mary, a keg of beer that has not been produced since the ‘70s, remnants of the Axe and Coffin secret society, and other signs that there once was a healthy community of tunnelers here.
“The sad thing is,” says Helix, is that “for every one thing that we find down here, we’ve lost another forever” as the University welds, plasters, or nails up doors. On the St. Paul’s entrance to the underground, authorities have recently placed new security cam- eras, and magnetic strips that pick up attempts to slip through windows. Throughout Pupin and Kent, first new locks were placed on the doors to the tunnels, but the aged wood slipping in its hinges could be jimmied with a knife and the right weight to bypass the deadbolt—recently, metal plates and locks were installed to prevent it. After wriggling down a series of pipes and crawling a story below the grates in front of Mathematics, you’ll find the crawl space entrance there sealed shut with a wooden beam and nails.
Administrators have a number of practical reasons to fear an accessible underground. Below Hamilton, clusters of wires lay open. Helix suggests from here one could take out the phones all over campus, give one’s self free cable, or, he say as he opens an unlocked box of switches, take out the air-conditioning in Hamilton Hall. Towards Pupin, a rogue tunneler is even more of a threat. Exposed pipes and wires there could (legend has it) take down the power in a good portion of the Upper West Side. And, of course, during the ’68 protests, the tunnels were used for communication by factions by students occupying different buildings. WKCR’s Andy Seitos, CC ‘71, even wiretapped phone lines in the tunnels in order to scoop major news outlets during the uprisings.
To echo Rosen and Duncan though, basic security precautions and dangerous conditions discourage most with a criminal impulse from descending into the abyss. The degree of commitment and skill required to pick locks, skirt even one security camera, and endure the discomforts of some underground places is born of passion, not chaos or sociopathy (save for an odd case like Hechtman). Duncan, Helix, and a host of others feel a sense of connection to other taggers and explorers they have never met. The core of this identity is not shared experience so much as shared feelings towards their environment. They all agree that no tunneler would ever think to damage a place whose history they care for so deeply. But the continuing crackdown in our tunnels may succeed in keeping even those with the most altruistic, exploratory and historical impulses out.
No one is quite sure why, but the crackdown has gained momentum in recent years. Many of the tunnels have been “closed” for at least half a century, but have remained accessible until recently. Sparrow—another amateur explorer whose small bird sticker tags appear on campus above ground occasionally before being removed— believes the crackdown started in earnest about four years ago. Helix has seen it picking up even more speed and energy (and technology—swipe cards, key pads, security cameras) just in the past few months to the point that, he admits, he can no longer keep up. What’s more, he knows that if he pulls down the beam blocking the Mathematics crawl space or if he manages to slip past the magnetic sensors on the St. Paul’s window, the university might take further steps to fully seal the tunnels, or parts of them, forever.
The population of underground taggers is obviously dwindling due to increasingly difficult access. New works seem to be fewer and less frequent, while some taggers like Mouse, whose dated tags end in 2006, are dropping off the map. And as the community dwindles, new generations also have fewer and fewer opportunities to learn from older tunnelers. Benoit was SEAS ’01 and the regular tours he gave to inspire younger generations ended long ago, and the map of the tunnels available on WikiCU, apparently compiled by Mike Schiraldi in 1999, is of little help today according to Sparrow. As a result, Sparrow does not know any other explorers, and Helix, though he knows one or two, has never met anyone else in the tunnels, save an occasional apathetic maintenance or construction worker.
Duncan’s photos and minor célébrité have inspired some interest in the tunnels. Likewise, the documentary “Exit through the Gift Shop,” and other fanfare surrounding British urban artist Banksy has drawn some popular attention to the subject matter in general. Urban exploration (UrbEx) is, for the moment, a popular topic to think about and talk about. But Sparrow doubts many people at Columbia will make action out of the inspiration Duncan and explorers and street artists all over the world can offer them. СИЛА is inactive here, and as the roofs and tunnels become inaccessible and his friends remain unwilling to explore with him, Sparrow is beginning to fall silent as well. The easiest tunnels still receive traffic from eager young feet, but how many have the perseverance, skills, and courage to break through a locked door into something unknown?
And when even Helix cannot gain access to the history preserved in the tunnels, what then? One of the most important living repositories of Columbia’s institutional memory is Robert McCaughey, the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of History at Barnard College and author of Stand Columbia. McCaughey remembers only the use of the tunnels by police in the 1960s, not by students. In fact, McCaughey has no real knowledge of the tunnels or their secrets. There is no reason for any students on campus today to remember that the Pupin labs were cleared of Manhattan Project papers and gadgets in 2003, or the removal in 2008 of the cyclotron, a mammoth relic treated with great reverence by tunnel taggers. Even memory of the Axe and Coffin society is now fading from memory. Only the tunnelers and taggers seem ready to record this history, but their presence, their lore, and their visibility have all been on a steady decline since 2006, threatening each year to disappear entirely.
Why we have decided this history is not worth remembering? Why this part of Columbia is not suitable for the brochures or at least respectable, aboveground daily conversations, no one can say. But it connects the graffiti above and below in one sense—both have been declared de facto blight.
Despite the history, the narrative, the art they may contain, the histories of graffiti and the tunnels are a shame to the university—a memory of a time and tradition that is being erased. Whether the crackdown is active or the erasure is unintentional and unavoidable makes no difference. Perhaps the historic and exploratory impulse, the taggers urge to record and identify, will manifest anew in some brilliant way. But it’s just as likely that something inside of this place will die, leaving nothing below our feet but veins deprived of the life that once rushed through them.