In December 2010, I focused on a particularly alarming example of cultural heritage destruction striking rock art sites across the American Southwest (“Graffiti Vandals Hit Rock Art Sites in American Southwest”). Two archaeological and natural sites — Agua Fria National Monument and Red Rock Canyon National Conservation area — were found vandalized by suspected gangs. Very mediocre and unartistic graffiti adorned the same surfaces as centuries-old — and yet unstudied — pictographs, petroglyphs, and etchings. Remote areas once considered “inaccessible” to the public were hauntingly tainted by the desecration of a few committed vandals; signs pointed to targeted criminal activity.
|Restoration of vandalized rock outcrops at Red Rock Canyon
has been ongoing for a year and a half
(Photo credit: K.M. Cannon, Las Vegas Review-Journal)
It appears this trend continues, as new instances of graffiti have been reported at some of America’s most iconic parks. Rangers at Saguaro National Park recently discovered at least 45 tags on rock formations and 150-year-old cacti. A Canadian man was interrupted by a tour group at Grand Canyon National Park as he attempted to paint his name on the famous ‘Duck on a Rock’ outcrop; upon questioning, the man stated the spot “was so special that if he left his name then his kids would be able to see it 20 years from now.” A popular hiking and day-use area of Joshua Tree National Park was closed indefinitely, as volunteer crews worked to clean multiple locations with painted graffiti; a park alert reminded visitors to dutifully report acts of vandalism or suspicious activity.
Meantime, officials from several vandalized parks have offered a possible motive: social media and the lure of instant recognition/gratification. Those who have been caught admit to the thrill of having their name known. One vandal claimed he found it “cool” to scratch his name next to an ancient rock art panel. (He’s paying monthly installments of $105 in a $10,000 restitution settlement.) Another wrote the same tag, “Super Duper Dana,” on a treasured panel of etched names of 19th century pioneers and in the visitor center sign-in book; he later posted photos of his work on Facebook. (He was fined $15,000.) One 17-year-old vandal known as Pee Wee has been so prolific across Red Rock Canyon that he’s gained a certain “grudging respect” among those who have spent over a year cleaning up his tags. (Pee Wee is not alone in this corps of graffiti artists at Red Rocks; authorities have been cleaning up paint there since the 1950s.)
Is a slight restitution settlement the only (best?) solution for these crimes? How much public money goes towards legal proceedings and restoration work year in, year out? Would this money be better spent on educating a wide audience to the lasting physical effects of painting ancient rocks? Would it be worth further criminalizing such forms of cultural degradation and natural destruction? Should vandals, when caught, be obliged to perform community service, such as participating in ongoing clean up?
I think these are interesting questions to ask ourselves in light of the Canadian man’s desire for his children to see his name. We would all like to be known to future generations, yet preferably for the good and honest efforts to preserve that which is most important: our shared heritage.