Known widely as the graffiti walls, these relics of student expression may appear to someone unfamiliar with them as illegal displays of art. However, students and others who utilize the walls are familiar with them as an encouraged form of self-expression.
Although the three-wall setup is an iconic fixture of OU’s Athens campus, the walls look very different today than their inception long ago. In fact, the three walls used to be one large wall that occupied the space where Bentley Annex currently sits.
According to a previous Post report from 2002, the original wall was built in 1926. It wasn’t until 1967 that members of a student athletic organization, the Metro A.C.’s, painted the wall to show support for their club, according to a 2008 Post report. The next week, members of OU’s hockey team painted over the original message, which was then painted over by OU staff, according to the 2008 report. Others would follow suit, and OU eventually stopped painting over the messages.
The graffiti wall was born.
In April 2001, the original wall was torn down to make room for Bentley Annex, according to a previous Post report from that time. Portions of the wall were sold to students and alumni to make money for the new university center, according to the aforementioned 2002 Post report, and the current walls were built following Bentley Annex’s completion.
No matter the form they took, though, the walls have been used to spread all kinds of messages: political pleas, marriage memos and everything in between.
They are especially important to Aimee Ford Foster, a 1986 OU graduate and alumna of The Post, who said painting the original, large wall gave her a sense of belonging when she participated for the first time as a freshman with some of her friends.
“It was just so incredible,” Foster said. “You don't have outlets like that in high school or in your hometown. And to go up there and join these people, as I'm just forming friendships at OU, to paint the wall, it was a real cool experience.”
On visits back to Athens, Foster said she remembers thinking the messages of today’s graffiti walls were more organized than when she attended OU, and that the messages seem to promote the university more often than they did in the past. The graffiti on the wall in the mid-1980s, she said, resembled the conventional idea of what graffiti is — more than pretty pictures, it was haphazard.
“It had that air of being kind of edgy and risque,” she said. “You never knew what you were going to see.”
This trait contributed to Foster’s description of the wall as a “touchstone.” On any given stroll past the wall, one could see the thoughts, feelings and popular topics of the university community, she said.
And while traditions are surely part of every university, Foster said the concept of OU’s graffiti walls — the constantly changing nature of them — is what’s truly special.
“As a sportswriter, I traveled to a lot of college campuses,” Foster said. “And everyone has their traditions, but the thing that made the wall special is that you just go out and do it. You go buy some paint and you go paint a message, and it's there for a day or a week and then it's gone. I thought it was always a big part of being at OU.”
Whereas Foster’s use of the wall was largely rooted in fun, Craig Greenlee, another 1986 OU graduate, used them more strategically. He hadn’t even thought of painting it until he got involved with Student Senate.
His first experience was when his friend campaigned for Senate president in 1984-85, he said. A year later, when Greenlee was campaigning for Senate president, he saw painting the wall as a necessary step in the process.
“I think it was expected,” Greenlee said of painting the wall. “I mean, at some point your supporters looked for your name to be on that wall. I think it definitely contributed.”
And he was right. He won.
While many OU alumni have positive recollections of the graffiti walls, they have not been devoid of controversy all these years.
In October 2000, The Post reported the wall had been covered with anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in response to Out Week, a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community.
Three years later, a group known as the Swarm of Dykes caught students painting anti-LGBTQ+ messages over a mural on the graffiti walls, according to a previous Post report. The students apologized and helped the Swarm repaint the mural.
Though these messages may be offensive to some, Jim Sabin, a university spokesperson, said the walls are governed by the university’s free speech policy and will not be interfered with unless messages contain a specific threat of physical harm.
This policy was undermined in 2002 when an OU employee painted over a labeled diagram of the female anatomy — painted in support of the OU Feminist Coalition’s Viva la Vulva Week — sparking backlash over the violation of free speech, The Post reported. According to the report, an OU official said the mistake was based on a miscommunication.
Despite this small sampling of negative anecdotes, the walls have largely been used for positive messages, including at least one announcement by a bride and groom.
Devan Cropp and his wife, Katie, both OU alumni who graduated in the early 2000s, first painted the walls to show support for their Greek Life involvement.
In 2008, Devan and his friends repeated the process to commemorate his and Katie’s wedding, painting “Just Married” above two hearts, their names and the date of their wedding.
Luke Potter | For The Post
Katie and Devan Cropp pose in front of the graffiti walls after their wedding.
“It was the first time I had been in a community that had that kind of space where your message could be visible in such a cool way, and that day the message was about us being married and I thought that was really a sweet gesture,” Katie said. “It really shocked me, and I thought that was pretty special.”
The main draw of the walls, the community space aspect Katie mentioned, has heavily influenced Kristen Eads, a 2018 OU graduate and frequent wall artist. Eads first painted the walls in 2016 as a camp counselor in Athens.
Four years later, when Black Lives Matter protests erupted worldwide, Eads used the walls as an outlet to show her support.
“There was a specific day where I felt completely overwhelmed with the news of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and I just felt so distraught; I didn't know what to do,” Eads said. “The climate of the world was, it was a lot. And I just knew that I wanted to do something, I wanted to use whatever platform that I felt that I had to contribute and be a part of the solution.”
Since then, Eads has painted murals celebrating Pride Month and Juneteenth.
Photo provided by Kristen Eads
While the walls can be used by anyone, Eads said she has painted over her own work a handful of times. In doing so, she contributes to what she refers to as the “living conversation” of the walls. To her, the thick layers of paint are indicative of a story being told.
Eads said she looks forward to having students back on campus to participate in utilizing the walls. Eads emphasized the importance she feels of new students not being intimidated to give the wall a try.
“It is just as much my wall as it is the next person as the next person as the next person,“ Eads said. “It's really a wall for the people.”
On Sunday, many OU students painted the walls as part of Welcome Week activities sponsored by the university. The walls are covered with symbols students feel are indicative of the university, welcoming students to campus, inviting them to leave their mark.