Battling Graffiti in Zion’s Famous Canyons

SCA Intern Kiara Serantes on the Fight to Keep the Canyons Clean

As we left the oven-like truck to trek toward one of Zion’s many ancient rock art panels, I wondered how much graffiti we’d have to clean up this time. Would there be more pecked smiley faces or barely legible initials sprawled across the centuries-old indigenous patterns? Would it be too much, would we be too late? Surveying the panel, my heart sank: Sure enough — despite having just cleaned graffiti from the very same spot last week — more vandals had left their mark.

Cleaning graffiti is routine for Zion’s cultural resources crew, and although we scrub and wash, most damage is typically irreversible. Russ Cash, a projects manager for Zion’s cultural resources department, said that he cleans graffiti from rock panels at least once or twice a week.

“Just over the last four years, I feel like there’s been a massive increase in the amount of graffiti that I’ve been removing,” he said.

 In a matter of minutes, a vandal can completely deface a crucial component of ancient indigenous culture. I wonder if they feel any remorse or even realize that a millennia’s work of preservation is now lost.

“In urban environments … graffiti on the side of a building can be painted over — it’s a fairly easy fix. It doesn’t make that graffiti right or less wrong,” Cash said. “But here in a national park, when you graffiti something like a petroglyph panel or a pictograph panel — it’s gone forever.

Casey Nocket — aka Creepytings — was sentenced last week to two years probation and 200 hours of community service for defacing seven national parks across the West, including Zion, and posting her ventures on social media. Her story exemplifies the negligence, ignorance and egocentrism of people unwilling to consider the cultural heritage and implicit value of our parks.

Graffiti damaging an ancient rock painting at Zion National Park. Graffiti damaging an ancient rock painting at Zion National Park. (Photo: Kiara Serantes/NPS)

“Everybody wants to leave their mark somewhere; it’s human nature,” he said. “Unfortunately, that human nature is also in conflict with preserving these resources.”

That desire to leave a mark must be the only thing going through a vandal’s mind as they etch their “art” on monuments and artifacts thousands of years in the making. Not only are they feeding the worst aspects of human nature — selfishness and greed —  but they are simultaneously obliterating countless opportunities for research, enjoyment and cultural appreciation.

“If somebody damages something here in the park, there can be small fines — a couple hundred dollars — all the way up to a couple thousand [dollars],” Cash said. “In some cases, if the offence is egregious enough, or if it’s someone’s second or third offence, there can be jail time. The problem is, though, catching individuals as they deface property and deface resources.”

Apparently, the looming threats of jail time and heavy fines are not enough to deter vandals who are so far gone into the realm of solipsism as to somehow believe their tag is more valuable than art that in many cases is all that remains of entire cultures — more valuable than wilderness, more valuable than land set aside specifically for conservation, preservation and a fostering of the often forgotten social-nature connection.

A view of some ot the graffiti damage to the ancient rock art at Zion National Park.Photo: Kiara Serantes/NPS

As a cultural resources intern, I hope to work alongside career conservationists like Russ Cash to foster a connection between the public and Zion’s vast archaeological resources. Our current project involves editing the park’s massive cache of archaeological information and making it available to the public for the first time ever.

“This is information that has never been available to the public before,” Cash said. “I kind of have this theory that people don’t care about what they don’t know about. If we can get people to understand what’s here and what we protect, then they may end up caring about it a little bit more and actually be more proactive in helping protect these areas.”

Our national parks are designated to benefit each and every one of us. It’s time we start taking responsibility for that which, in many ways, defines the last of what is best about our country. Yes, the park is here to be enjoyed by every American, but let’s never forget that we do not live in a vacuum separate from each other: Our actions and lives are connected. We have the power — and responsibility — to conserve that which is intended to benefit us all and rekindle that connection.

SCA Cultural Resources Intern Kiara Serantes cleans up graffiti in one of Zion National Park's famous slot canyons. SCA Cultural Resources Intern Kiara Serantes cleans up graffiti in one of Zion National Park’s famous slot canyons.

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