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Art vs. Vandalism: Color Park

By: Grant Clarke

When Ex-Steeler Baron Batch was arrested for graffiti in the summer of 2016, graffiti detective Alphonso Sloan was the man who put the handcuffs on him.   

“I would consider us friends even from the beginning,” Sloan said. “He was always a nice, friendly guy, and I think his intentions were a little less being rebellious but more to beautify the neighborhood. He just kind of took the long route to do it.”  

 A veteran police officer with 13 years of experience with the graffiti task force, Sloan became friends and even worked alongside Batch at a live art event.  

A year after the arrest, in the Spring of 2017 Batch teamed up with Friends of the Riverfront, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring the river fronts of Pittsburgh, to create the Color Park in the South Side. Here, graffiti is not only allowed, but encouraged.  

Batch originally painted blocks of concrete in vibrant colors along the Three River’s Trail, but the park has since blossomed into a place where the artistic community can express their creativity without the fear of getting in trouble with the law. Countless artists from all skill levels have left their mark on the park, and it evolves and changes every time you visit.  

“It’s been interesting to see how it has evolved over the years,” Batch said on his Instagram. “An open space for expression is a fascinating thing. Glad that it exists.”  

But it’s not just popular with artists. People from all walks of life go to enjoy the view and the art, and it is particularly popular with teenagers and young adults.  

“It’s definitely different, I’ve never seen anything else like it,” says Cole McCullough, 18, who was visiting the park. “Everybody’s expressing how they feel. It’s not just like you have to draw a picture, people just put down words and it just explains how they’re feeling in the moment, or how they’re feeling about life.”  

According to crimegrade.org, about 3,200 vandalism cases happen each year in Pittsburgh. While one might think that a place like Color Park might help to curb vandalism in the city, Sloan says that is not the case.  

“I don’t think it really has any type of effect on graffiti as vandalism, Sloan said. “Graffiti as vandalism is done for a different purpose. Sometimes it’s for the purpose of doing something artistic, but 90% of the time vandalism is a thrill. There’s no thrill in doing legal graffiti.”  

Sloan said he felt the rebellious spirit of the tagger as a teenager, when he himself experimented with graffiti. That experience allows him to both appreciate the art of graffiti, and it helps him in his job today on the graffiti task force.  

“I am able to actually decipher a lot of the graffiti that other people can’t read,” he said. “I kind of have an eye for it, identifying graffiti and who it was possibly tied to,”   

With graffiti as an art form becoming more accepted in society today, that makes the process in identifying graffiti even harder. In the past, police would identify graffiti as vandalism based on if aerosol, found in spray-paint, was used or not, Sloan said.  

 But today many mural artists use spray-paint in their art. Sloan says that it is really a non-issue, and it all depends on the building or business owner, and neighbors in the area.  

“If a building owner wants it, it’s a mural,” he said, “You get a lot of neighbors who complain about other neighbors that they don’t clean their graffiti off. But we haven’t had any issues where someone has had aerosol murals on their property and the neighbors complain about it.”  

Even if Color Park does not help with vandalism in the city, Sloan says he can still appreciate it as a place for the community of artists in Pittsburgh to display their messages and art.  

“There will always be a fine line between art and vandalism,” he said. “But I think overall, the parks and public areas where people can express themselves are good, I just don’t think it’s ever going to reduce vandalism in the city. The thrill seekers are out there, and they have to get their thrill.”  

So next time you find yourself in the South Side, consider adding your own message or artwork to the ever-changing Color Park. Just don’t do it anywhere else, or you might find yourself in the custody of Detective Alphonso Sloan.  

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