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Historic Graffiti Restored at Alcatraz

Monday, December 10, 2012

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Usually, painting graffiti on a historic landmark would invite a hefty fine, if not some time behind bars.

But when the water tower on Alcatraz Island recently got a fresh paint job, the National Park Service also took the unusual step of repainting its famous graffiti—the political rallying cries of two generations ago.

"Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land." These were the words that the group Indians of All Tribes painted on the water tower during their occupation of the famous island off San Francisco from 1969 to 1971. 

National Park Service

The water tower was painted with political declarations during the occupation by a group called "Indians of All Tribes" between 1969 and 1971.

Forty years later, the National Park Service made sure that the historic graffiti would remain on the tank by putting it there themselves. The decision is believed to be a first for the Park Service.

"We painstakingly documented the original graffiti on the water tower," said Alex Picavet, Golden Gate National Recreation Area spokesperson. "It's the same color paint; everything is the same."

"This is a really important part of Alcatraz's history, and this was one of the most visible ways that this history stays present on Alcatraz," Picavet told Indian Country Today Media Network.

120 Years, 3 Phases...

Alcatraz Island has worn several faces since being declared a military reservation in 1850 by President Millard Fillmore. By 1859, troops were permanently garrisoned at the post for the defense of the Bay Area. The Rock's military role lasted until 1934, when it became a federal penitentiary.

The prison closed in 1963. A year later, the island was the site of the first of three occupations by American Indians, including many whose tribes were being terminated by federal policy. Although the first occupation last only four hours, two more followed in 1969: a brief stand on Nov. 9 and a full-scale occupation by members of multiple tribes that began Nov. 20.

The Indians' political declarations were painted during the final occupation.

The occupation involved about 100 people, but only 11 adults and four children were present when armed federal marshals, FBI agents, and special forces police swarmed the island and ended the action June 11, 1971.

... And 1 Water Tower

Throughout its storied history, Alcatraz had no water of its own, importing every drop from the mainland. The 250,000-gallon elevated steel water tank was constructed to supply water to a population of 500—half prisoners and half prison guards and their families.

The tank has sat empty since the prison closed in 1963.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

The original graffiti was "painstakingly documented" before it was coated over.

Salty marine air had taken its toll on the historic structure, which was constructed in 1940 and had not been coated since then.

During a survey a few years ago, holes big enough to see through were found in the tank. The government contracted MTM Builders Inc. in San Diego to stabilize and repair the tank.

The $1.1 million contract included putting in new steel, sanding the old tank to bare metal, and repainting it with high-performance paint.

Special Conditions

Restoring the water tower was no easy task, as contractors had to be mindful of several special conditions.

Steeped in history, the structure had to meet the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. The tank is also an interpreted site of Indian Conscience, since it was used as a sign during the Indian Occupation.

Moreover, Alcatraz is now a nesting ground for regionally significant migratory sea birds that are protected from disturbance and harassment under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. 

"It is an honor to work on historic projects such as the Alcatraz Water Tower," said Stephen Nishimuta, vice president of MTM Builders.

"The project was very difficult with potential for high winds and strong storms that come through the area, as well as the need for complete containment because of the lead paint and to make sure we didn't disrupt the nesting season of the migratory birds."

National Park Service / Craig Glassner

Work on the water tower required total containment because of wind, lead-based paint, and nesting birds.

TechnoCoatings Inc., of Anaheim, CA, performed the coatings work. The original coatings on the tank's interior and exterior surfaces were primed with lead-based paint, and the finish coat on the exterior was an unknown white paint, the company said.

The new coatings included two coats of a high-build, fast-drying, polyamide epoxy and two coats of an ambient-cured, one-component acrylic coating. The structure was also stripe-coated between coats, TechnoCoatings said.


Tagged categories: Containment; Government contracts; Graffiti; Lead; Lead paint abatement; Linings; Primers; Water Tanks

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (12/10/2012, 10:46 AM)

Interesting to see restored graffiti as a historical landmark. I'm a bit puzzled that the missing lattice bars were apparently not replaced - perhaps they are no longer needed if the tower is kept empty.

Comment from peter gibson, (12/10/2012, 12:48 PM)

" Unknown white paint " is nobody the least a bit curious these days. As coatings expeerts on a historical structure, they should have had it analized and repoted back.Very disappointing. The dont care attitude remains pervasive.

Comment from Ed Darrimon, (12/10/2012, 1:51 PM)

The original coat was red lead with an oil based alkyd top coat. The tank had some steel repairs due to the corrosion on the tank shell, roof, and bowl. The tank will not be used for storing water it was rehabilitated to be a historical landmark for the island.

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