Public Art in the Yates Motor Co. Building: Same Message, Different Methods

I’m still not sure how best to dress for graffiti removal. But my job is to create a healthy environment for businesses to operate in downtown Chapel Hill – so day-to-day tasks fall on a spectrum a mile wide. These days removing graffiti from one particular set of windows has become rather routine so you’d think I would better prepare for it. 

Since October when we first scrapped graffiti off the windows of the Yates Motor Co. building on West Franklin Street in preparation for a holiday art display -we’ve wondered if or when those that tagged it would take notice. Would they tag it again or would they quietly walk away and leave us to our art? This morning my question was answered. Myself and my coworker Bobby scrapped graffiti off the windows…yet again.

So, back at the office I declared that we should consider adding a line to the Downtown Partnership’s mission to reflect our new skill set; we are practiced in the fine art of graffiti removal! While sweating and scraping we talk an awful lot about the graffiti. We like to determine what type of paint or marker was used, the merits of scraping vs. wiping,  how long it takes for a blade to become dull, and if Goo Gone could possibly be more awesome. We even hypothesize spray paint theories. Today’s theory - freshly sprayed paint is much easier to remove because sunlight helps to ‘bake’ paint onto the window if left for too long. 

As a community we have demonstrated over and over that we value public art. The irony of removing one persons artistic voice in order to install anothers is not lost on me. It begs some questions - does public art only hold value if it’s sanctioned? Is someones name scrawled jerkily on a window actually art? No doubt there is a beauty to street art. It can be brilliant and graceful, even in the simplest of flowing lines. I can certainly appreciate the emotion from which it comes.

But my paint scraping brings a certain emotion too – absolute determination.

Today we began installing the long-awaited holiday art display in those windows. It will be finished on Friday.  The display will be a visual testament to what this winter season brings to us as a community – both a sense of focusing inward and yet reaching out to our family and friends to celebrate. It is styled much in the tradition of New York's famous department store holiday window displays.

However, it will not be full of blinking lights and shiny trees. It's rather fun to be challenged to put up a holiday display with no electricity! Instead it is truly a unique work of art by a talented and thoughtful UNC art student, Adrian Schlesinger, who was tasked with creating a holiday display; and yet was left with a much more meaningful experience. We gave Adrian ideas, she came back with a vision.

There will be some familiar figures in that window, a fabulous poem from Shel Silverstein, and even a few symbolic references to the events of Sunday, November 13.  The display would have long been complete before Thanksgiving if not for that ‘occupation’. To ignore it now would be too difficult.

My gut tells me that the Yates building has now become a symbol in the struggle for disenfranchised voices to be heard – so today may not be the last time I scrape graffiti off of those windows. So ultimately, those that spray the paint and those that scrape it off aren’t that much different. We both have a passionate message to share just a different way to do it.  

Unfortunately, the message of this art - take care of each other in the bleakest of times - may never resonate with those standing in the bushes, in the dark of night, with the can of spray paint poised to strike.

Despite gloppy chunks of paint speckling my hair and calloused fingers that know how to grip a razor blade with the utmost of fragility – I’ve found my own determination. I’m determined to bring color and life to a building that had grown gray and dusty. I’m determined to give young artists, who struggle to find a place to display their work, a chance at visibility. And I’m even more determined to leave downtown a better place than when I found it.  

We welcome all on Friday to help us get the display installed. Bring a ladder if you can! Or simply enjoy the art next time you are walking by - stop to read the poem. Let me know if you recognize any of the figures in that window. (Hint: SOMEONE looks best from her left side!) And thank you to all who have already volunteered their time, resources, and talents to this project.   

To those that have and will continue to tag the windows - I think your art belongs on public display too, maybe even in that building.  Spring art displays are already in the works for those fabulously bright and shiny windows. We'll be back.

~Meg