You can’t help but notice it when driving across the Smokey Park Bridge into Asheville: A bright wall of color in the middle of the River District’s industrial landscape.
It started when local guerrilla outfit Eyesore Studios asked about filming a graffiti-writing scene on one of the property’s old silos. Modernist developer Whit Rylee gave them permission. When they finished, he liked it.
“I said, ‘It looks pretty cool, you can do more,’” Rylee says. “And this network of people have stepped up and have been out there painting it.”
The wall is only open to a small, self-regulated group of graffiti writers. Don’t stop by and expect to start painting. While the writers have permission to create their art on the property, the spot isn’t technically a legal wall where anyone can paint.
Still, the group does bring in out-of-town guests.
“They’ve had people down there who were painting graffiti in New York on subway cars in the ‘80s,” Rylee says. He notes that 100,000 cars a day cross the bridge, a fact that seems to please him.
At ground level, the walls are even more surprising—there’s humor, admonitions (a talking Mr. Peanut warns the kid-writers about scrawling on other people’s pieces: “Stay off the nuts”), memorials (an elaborate stencil of Hunter S. Thompson) and politics (President Obama). And there are rules and ethics, both stated and unstated.
A handful of writers worked in the cold on a recent February afternoon. A couple of them wanted the article to say: The wall isn’t about gangs.
What’s happening at this wall is different from those where the kids scrawl their names on the sides of buildings, says one of the writers. What’s happening at this wall is expressive, and it’s a tradition that’s passed along.
Soon the wall area won’t be open for new graffiti anymore, because there are plans for an urban garden there. (Although in some cities, there are public walls for graffiti.) Though Rylee says people can still paint on the silos.
“We really like the energy they’ve brought,” he says.
Photos by Jonathan Welch