Last week, a group of public officials and citizens gathered in North Nashville’s Buena Vista neighborhood to unveil an artistically safe, sanctioned mural that suggests some interpretation of the loose term “community.” On the same day, Metro Public Works employees were removing spray-painted squiggles — shapes that a 3-year-old could have created — from a segment of the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge.
The contrast is stark: During a recent and relatively brief time span that included the unveiling of the Buena Vista mural, the “Exploration and Discovery” outdoor art installation at Public Square and the addition of Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin’s visage to the so-called “Wall of Fame” at 28th and West End avenues, a string of taggings hit downtown Nashville. None of it was artistic, none of it seemed to relate in terms of political or gang themes and motives. And much of it was done apparently by various unconnected sources.
From mid-May to mid-June, vandals tagged the State Capitol with “Get Out” and “RIP Tony Al,” the Main Library with “Toney Stash Music,” the pedestrian bridge and no fewer than 10 private businesses, including the sign for Tuck-Hinton Architects in SoBro and the Courtyard by Marriott in the Central Business Improvement District.
“We have incidents crop up form time to time, but never at this level,” said Sgt. Tony Blackburn of Metro police’s Central Precinct.
Bryan Deese, a local graphic designer and founder of Concrete magazine, does professional graffiti-themed mural work as a side business and monitors both sanctioned work and illegal tagging.
“It sounds like coincidentally there were random acts of graffiti” spanning a relatively brief time period and focused on downtown, said Deese, who has collaborated on, among others, the SoBro murals that feature Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.
Deese, whose work was recently on display at Bonnaroo, said the general public must differentiate artistic and legal graffiti pop art and the motivation from which it stems, from acts of vandalism involving spray-painted scribble.
“The motivation for the actual act is a major defining thing,” said Deese, who is featured with others in the Nashville chapter of the recently released History of American Graffiti, written by Roger Gastman.
Look at eye-catching public art such as Michael Cooper’s Church Street Park mural or the Isaac Arvold, John Grider, Eric Inkala and Drew Peterson creation on the west wall of the Viridian parking garage, and you might wonder: Should Metro or even a private local entity provide a place for the public to enliven with spray paint?
Venice Beach, Calif., has its Venice Public Art Walls (though some critics contend its once-attractive form has deteriorated), while Scott Carpenter Park in Boulder, Colo., has met with some success.
But city-sponsored programs that sanction graffiti often fail. Examples include Louisville, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
Critics argue that free walls give graffiti vandals a safe haven for networking and send mixed messages about the art form’s legality, appropriateness and artistic quality. As well, they often don’t appeal to those who find joy in illegal acts for no monetary gain.
Metro’s Blackburn said police arrested 28-year-old Jeffrey Erickson, who officials said admitted to tagging downtown businesses, last week.
“He rode around with officers and pointed out the  locations he sprayed,” Blackburn said. “He said he was bored.”
Blackburn said most people dabbling in illegal tagging range in age from 13 to 21. “It’s unusual to have a 28-year-old tagging buildings in broad daylight,” he said of Erickson.
But Deese, the artist, doesn’t think the recent uptick in tagging is out of the ordinary.
“Nashville is probably similar to other similar-sized cities — not really more or less graffiti than, say, an Oklahoma City,” he said.
Given that graffiti can often be removed quickly with a pressure washer and/or chemicals, local officials question the need for a formal program. Chase Adams, director of administrative services for the Nashville Public Library — often a target of graffiti — was skeptical.
“My concern is that some of the graffiti artists might not be inclined to go to the [sanctioned] place to display the artwork,” he said. “Some of this is tagging. Gang members will put their signs on buildings in their territory.”
Russell Payne, vice president of operations for the Nashville Downtown Partnership, oversees the entity’s Clean and Safety Unit. Like Adams, he’s not ready to support a local program that would sanction the use of spray-paint art.
“We have not discussed it, and I’m not sure what our position would be,” said Payne, whose team typically spends no more than 10 hours per week removing graffiti (often in alleys and on trash cans and newspaper boxes).
Meg MacFadyen, the co-owner of local Art & Invention Gallery and a member of the Metro Nashville Arts Commission, said the topic of a sanctioned space has not been discussed. The commission has been busy the past year both promoting and placing public art.
“But the arts commission is dedicated to community outreach and creating opportunities for many artist groups that are either overlooked or underserved,” she said. “We have spent countless hours discussing how to help these groups organize themselves and/or qualify for grants funding.”
Adams said the library paid $600 to have Dallas Upchurch of A&S Restoration — “He knows limestone,” Adams said — to remove the “Toney Stash Music” tagging.
Blackburn said graffiti “degrades the community over time.”
“If it’s not removed immediately, it produces problems,” said the police sergeant, who speculated the Capitol tagging might have been a political statement referring to the late Tony Alamo, the imprisoned former leader of what many considered a religious cult.
Deese said the general public must look at graffiti — an art form often highlighted by color — as an issue with many sociological shades of gray.
“Ultimately, [graffiti] rarely affects the structure,” he said. “The library opened its doors that day. It was politics as usual at the State Capitol. But it was unfortunate. There is a cost to remove, and eventually a building, if hit often, could show signs of deterioration.”
Deese said Nashville has long dealt with illegal graffiti — and will continue to do so.
“Does Nolensville Road have a problem with gang grafitti?” he asked rhetorically. “Yes. Has downtown suffered a recent rash? Yes. But I don’t know if there is any connection.”