JAMESTOWN, R.I. — Fort Wetherill in Jamestown sits atop 100-foot-high granite cliffs overlooking Newport Harbor. Lapping waves hug the base of the former military site, now a state park known for its sprawling views and enticing recreation for hikers, divers, boaters, and picnickers.
But embedded in the brush of the 61.5-acre property is a concrete fortification that for years has attracted a community of fringe visitors: graffiti artists.
“The traits that made it an effective military installation during the Revolutionary War — a remote location with tunnels and concrete walls hidden by vegetation — also make it an appealing target for graffiti vandals,” said Michael Healey, chief public affairs officer for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, which acquired the state park from the federal government in 1972.
The property is one of many that the department spends roughly $500,000 per year, in total, to maintain, Healey said.
Even with funding, keeping Fort Wetherill graffiti-free is no easy feat. And the almost Sisyphean task falls on the shoulders of one dedicated employee: Michael Pellerin, the park’s manager.
“Given its location and word of mouth reputation among taggers,” Healey said, “Fort Wetherill might be DEM’s biggest maintenance challenge.”
When Pellerin arrives at Fort Wetherill, he greets his regular group of dog walkers, and then checks in on the stretches of graffiti he most recently painted over. Usually, he’s up to his eyeballs in new tags.
“Its a zero-tolerance kind of thing,” Pellerin said. “It doesn’t matter what it is. If it has graffiti, then we go paint over it.”
Using a roller attached to a broomstick and the a color called “sticks and stones,” Pellerin paints over the layers graffiti until they are completely covered. He has to do this at least once per week to keep up with the taggers, (and more like three times per week in the summer), usually right after the weekend, targeting the “vulgarities” and “not so nice things” on the walls. In his two years as park manager, Pellerin has painted over large sections of Fort Wetherill 40 to 50 times.
“Its such a big job,” Healey said. “It’s a constant battle.”
But once a year, Pellerin gets a bit of extra muscle, when the department has a service day at Fort Wetherill and employees chip in and help with the cleanup.
Still, a recent post on the Facebook group Greater Rhode Island Roaming summed up what Pellerin is up against. It included an image of a recently graffitied message over one of Pellerin’s freshly-painted tan walls: “Why paint over this?” the message said, in large, red letters. “People will continue to do this, so you do too. It’s a stupid repeating cycle. This will not stop artists.”
Also called “Graffiti Park,” tag artists have long flocked to the remote Jamestown fort for its numerous tunnels and concrete emplacements — the perfect hidden canvases for underground art. The fort was abandoned for about a quarter-century before it was acquired by the DEM, making it all the more interesting for artistic fodder. The site often shows up in online discourse about interesting abandoned places to visit.
“I’ll be the first to tell you there’s some really, really cool tag artists in Rhode Island, and some graffiti can really be artistic,” Healey admitted. “But unfortunately for those taggers, there’s a no graffiti law in Rhode Island, and we can’t really be in the position of being the evaluators of something’s artistic credibility.”
Pellerin often fields the question of why he’s painting over art, and he simply reminds people that he’s typically covering vulgarities, or future vulgarities.
“I’ve talked to people who’ve admitted to me, ‘I get why you do this now, because I can paint a really nice thing, and a random person can come with a spray can and just spray paint something gross and disgusting over it,’” Pellerin said.
Just before Pellerin took on the role as park manager, the department cleared out heavy, overgrown brush around the fort to make it more visible, which has made his job easier and helped deter vandals, he said.
Although the end might always be far from view, the constant upkeep at Fort Wetherill doesn’t discourage Pellerin.
“I don’t think it’s a fight,” he said. “I enjoy beautifying my park.”