By Joe Kukura
One of the great offbeat charms of Gainesville, Florida, is a 1,120-foot graffiti wall that has new graffiti added every day. The 34th Street Wall is a giant public art piece, community bulletin board and fun cultural landmark that Gainesville residents and local students have been painting away on since 1979. The wall is sometimes called “Gainesville’s public diary,” as it constantly chronicles developments of the day both locally and in the world at large. And the wall always features some really terrific street art.
The 34th Street Wall is a gigantic living mural that spreads nearly a quarter mile in length, with a patchwork of different paintings that all change by the day. Some of the painting is exceptionally brilliant; some is slapdash and amateur. And it all gets painted over eventually, with some areas estimated to have more than 250 layers of paint.
Some renowned and professional graffiti artists travel from around the world to paint on the 34th Street Wall. Birthday greetings, personal announcements and marriage proposals are common on the wall. No, it is not technically legal to paint graffiti on the wall. But the wall is popular in the Gainesville community and this law hasn’t been enforced in years. Instead, authorities put out waste containers to make sure the painting supplies are disposed of or recycled properly.
Originally built as a retaining wall by the Florida Department of Transportation in the late 1970s, the wall was meant to prevent erosion when 34th Street was widened to four lanes. The blank canvas was apparently too tempting for the artistically inclined, and decades later it’s still being painted with more graffiti.
The University of Florida Digital Collections has a fascinating online photo archive of the 34th Street Wall graffiti over the years called Messages on the Wall. Since previous graffiti gets painted over every day (and sometimes every hour), the Messages on the Wall database collects and posts as many snapshots of the wall’s graffiti artwork as possible. The photos are then presented in a searchable database whose pictures go all the way back to the late 1980s.
There is only one section of the wall that remains the same, a permanent memorial to five victims killed in a tragic 1990 crime spree. That panel of the wall turned into a shrine, and some administrative police staff took up the cause to maintain that section of the mural. It continues to be maintained, and painters generally respect that portion as off limits.
But everywhere else on the 34th Street Wall, anything goes.
The 34th Street Wall mural is one of the many eclectic attractions of Gainesville, and part of the fabric that gives it its creative and irreverent character. Visit Gainesville to see for yourself how the graffiti wall is part of the city’s off-the-wall charm and one of the best spots for a photo op.