Arts & Culture

Who knew vines could deter graffiti artists — and add public art?

Ivy-it, a fake ivy product being gradually applied to various locations in Tacoma since last November, has proven itself as a graffiti deterrant along Shuster Parkway under the Stadium Way overpass.
Ivy-it, a fake ivy product being gradually applied to various locations in Tacoma since last November, has proven itself as a graffiti deterrant along Shuster Parkway under the Stadium Way overpass. rponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

Art? Nature? Distraction? Actually, none of the above. If you’ve driven along Tacoma’s Shuster Parkway or Stadium Way in the last nine months, you might have noticed something where those roads join Interstate 705 and Pacific Avenue: ivy, spread over the overpass wall in rather unusual patterns. Whizzing by in a car, it looks a little like lettering, only not quite. It’s sort of natural, but not really. Either way, it’s proving successful at deterring graffiti.

A public works project by the City of Tacoma, the fake ivy is a product called Ivy-It, which has been used successfully for years in California to deter graffiti vandals. Tacoma has been putting up trial areas every few months since last November (there are now four). The plastic ivy covers up and beautifies concrete in places where real ivy can’t grow — yes, there really are such places, like the dry, dark spaces underneath overpasses. It’s bolted to the wall in patterns that resemble natural ivy — although, ironically, in Tacoma’s locations it looks surprisingly like cursive lettering.

“It’s not intended to look like letters,” says Diane Sheefley, an engineer and project manager with the department.

Yet the lines are so letter-like that they peel your eyes away from the road in an effort to decipher them — just a little distracting at city speed, and rather artsy.

“It’s a tough line because they don’t want to apply it in straight lines because then it looks extremely fake,” says Naomi Strom-Avila, the city’s cultural arts specialist. “But to be cost-effective they can’t apply it super-densely as ivy usually grows.”

And it definitely wasn’t meant as a distraction, says Sheefley.

Not every Tacoman likes the Ivy-It.

“It seems like some real, thorny, natural, noninvasive plant might have accomplished the same goals,” said Jessica Corey-Butler on Facebook. “And haven’t we demonstrated that graffiti can be employed as a beautification technique?”

The good news is that so far those four locations have only seen one tag over six months — a big improvement. Since cleaning up graffiti costs $3 per square foot, and the fake ivy costs nearly $10, anything outlasting three taggings saves maintenance money, Sheefley points out.

“At first I thought it was a strange way to attempt to “beautify” downtown,” said Erik Bjornson, whose office faces one of the vines. “However, they seem to be working surprisingly well in reducing graffiti.”

And it also does double-duty as public art, it seems.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

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