Empty building provides graffiti artists with temporary outlet

Oct 7, 2013

For the last few years, graffiti artists have been going to an empty building on Syracuse's Near West Side, where they can paint without fear of legal hassle. But while dozens of artists have used this building as their outlet, has it helped decrease the amount of illegal graffiti citywide?

The smells and sounds of spray paint fill the air surrounding the vacant structure at then end of Tully Street, as two men paint thin blue lines while another paints a large, pink alien holding a laser gun.

An outlet to paint

The outside of the Tully Street building is nearly completely covered in graffiti from local, regional and national artists.
The outside of the Tully Street building is nearly completely covered in graffiti from local, regional and national artists.
Credit Gino Geruntino / WRVO

It's just another day for Tim Van Beveren and his friends, all graffiti artists who paint at the former business, which has become a refuge for a variety of painters and taggers to showcase their work, without getting arrested.

"I have people that want to be kept very discreet," Van Beveren said. "They'll get ahold of me through friends or something and they'll say, 'when can I go down there when there's no one down there, because I don't want anyone to know that I'm going to be there?' And there's other people where that's their life. They finally have an outlet where they can paint."

But he also says there are rules about what ends up on the walls.

"Pretty much anything goes on the inside," Van Beveren said. "But on the outside, no drugs, no sex stuff, no gang stuff, no violence, no guns or knives or nothing like that. So it supposed to be positive on the outside, something the kids can relate to."

That clearly hasn't stopped the artists' creativity, since many elaborate pieces with thick black lines surround a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. He says some artists have stopped painting illegally because they have a building that's become their haven. Others continue to paint graffiti illegally at their own risk.

But whether or not Syracuse has actually seen a decrease in graffiti crime since artists started flocking to the Tully Street building is up for debate. Sergeant Dave Pauldine, with the Syracuse Police Department, says graffiti has remained stagnant in the city, and often doesn't get reported.

Bright colors and sharp angles comprise the face of an empty Tully St. building in Syracuse.
Bright colors and sharp angles comprise the face of an empty Tully St. building in Syracuse.
Credit Gino Geruntino / WRVO

"In being under-reported, as a lot of these vacant properties, there is not a person who goes there from day-to-day or once a week," Pauldine said. "So it can be months, years, or even further to try and find out who actually owns the property."

According to Syracuse's codes department, since early 2012, the city has received 31 graffiti complaints, resulting in 63 violations.

Pauldine says budget and personnel cuts have left little time to fight graffiti.

Ken Towsley, with the city's codes department, noted that some of the calls were generated by citizens, while others were based on inspections stemming from another complaint.

But graffiti art can be hard to prosecute, too. That's because while technically anyone who has painted graffiti and is in possession of the materials used to make graffiti is breaking the law, if the artist has the building owner's permission, it can be hard to make a case.

In the meantime, the Tully Street building is up for sale. Van Beveren says the ceiling is leaking and the upstairs offices are unsafe. If the building is condemned, many artists will have nowhere to go, because as Sergeant Pauldine stressed multiple times, "there is no such thing as a legal wall."