Right time, write place at Wilde Lake High Graffiti walls give teens free expression in appropriate spot


Inside the new Wilde Lake High School -- with its $20 million worth of gleaming white hallways, floors and ceilings -- are three walls that are utterly, totally and completely covered with graffiti much of the time.

Is it the work of defiant adolescents rebelling against the establishment? Not exactly. The west Columbia school's principal says it's OK, because that's why the walls were created.

"One thing I try to stress is that there's an appropriate place and an inappropriate place for things," says Wilde Lake Principal Bonnie Daniel. "It's inappropriate to write on a bathroom wall. But if a place is provided for you to write on, that's different. Knowing which is appropriate is a mark of maturity."

Wilde Lake is the only school in Howard County with graffiti walls, though there are others nationwide. The idea came from the school's architect, Walter Kunz of Baltimore, who heard about the concept at a national conference on school design.

In the Baltimore region, the only other school with something similar to Wilde Lake's walls is Catonsville High School. Since 1993, it has allowed students to draw on the outside walls of a brick building that stores recreational equipment.

Catonsville Principal Robert Tomback says his school's graffiti wall has prevented defacement elsewhere of school property. "It works," Tomback says.

The Wilde Lake walls receive raves from students, who say they are a rare place where they can express themselves. One wall is in the cafeteria; the other two walls are in a hallway leading to the gym.

"I think they're the only cool place in the school because we can say what we think," says 10th-grader Makara Berry, flashing silver-painted fingernails as she eats french fries in the cafeteria.

Wilde Lake students also say the walls deter vandalism, pointing out that the bathrooms at the school they occupied while their school was rebuilt -- the 2 1/2 -year-old River Hill High School on Route 108 -- were marked with graffiti, while Wilde Lake's bathrooms are untouched.

The glazed tiles of Wilde Lake's graffiti walls allow any forbidden writings -- profanity, gang messages or derogatory comments about another person -- to be easily wiped off. And every so often, custodians make sure the students have a clean slate.

Daniel, the principal, says, "I keep a spray bottle in my office in case I see something " inappropriate. But at least one high-ranking Howard police officer would like to see all the writing wiped off. Maj. Wayne Livesay, deputy chief of operations for the Howard County Police Department, says the graffiti walls undermine law enforcement's efforts against vandalism.

"These walls go against everything we teach," Livesay says. "It does not make sense to encourage graffiti."

But Jim Harkness, PTSA president at Wilde Lake, says he hasn't received any complaints about the walls from parents.

The fuchsia, blue and black scrawlings on the walls range from pronouncements of love to outbursts of school spirit ("WLHS softball rules!") to obscure aphorisms ("The eyes believe themselves. The ears believe other people.").

Some older than, say, 18 may need a teen-age translator to understand some of the scribblings. For example, being called "da bomb" is a good thing. "A lot of the stuff on the walls is inside jokes," says 11th-grader Emily Straw. "I like it because it's original and no other schools have it."

For some students, scribbling on the walls between classes is just for fun. For others, the walls are a mouthpiece for political views. One young man wearing a ponytail and sunglasses wrote "Join the Army -- murder and die" on the wall in the cafeteria, right next to an Army recruiting table.

Still other students consider graffiti an art form. Tenth-grader Danny Bayron, whose notebooks are covered with pictures and words, speaks a graffiti artist's language in which the words "outline," "burner," "piece" and "tag" signify types of drawings.

"I've been into graffiti since I was 10 years old," he says. "But I could never do my favorite hobby at school until now."

Pub Date: 12/11/96

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