Skagway questions answered
History, graffiti, or art?
Wow. Alaska is beautiful. Let’s paint our names on it!
When you first arrive in Skagway on your cruise ship, you will immediately notice numerous paintings on the mountainside. Tourists often walk into the tour booth to ask us about these paintings. They say, “What are those paintings on the rocks over there?” and point at the mountain. Well, the answer to this question is a bit complicated. This blog has the answers you’re looking for.
Some graffiti is art
Let’s first define what the “paintings” are. The rocks that make up the mountainside have existed for around 70 million years. They were formed during the Jurassic Period when dinosaurs ruled the land. About 118 years ago, some people decided to start painting various things on these rocks. This means that the paintings are actually graffiti.
What is graffiti? The Encyclopedia Britannica defines graffiti as “a form of visual communication, usually illegal, involving the unauthorized marking of public space by an individual or group.” Another word to describe it is vandalism. In most cases, jerks that vandalize mountains with graffiti are making a vain attempt to challenge their own mortality. They think that painting their name on a 70 million-year-old mountain is somehow preserving their identity or making note of some personal achievement. As we will soon see, that’s just dumb.
Sometimes graffiti is considered art. Chances are that if the graffiti is created by inner-city youths, it is vandalism. However, if the graffiti is created by a famous artist of European descent, it’s art. If the graffiti makes an ironic or nihilistic statement, it is also art. The paintings on the rocks in Skagway are none of those things, so it is not considered art.
Some graffiti is historic
Many of the paintings on the rocks in Skagway are old, but are they historic? That’s a tough question to answer but we are going to give it a shot. How old does something have to be before it can be considered historic? I’m not really sure, but the Landmark Society says that a building has to be at least 50 years old before it’s considered historic. Since that was the first thing I Googled, we are going to run with it.
This is 2018. Fifty years ago it was 1968. Back then there were Civil Rights protests, the Vietnam war, and Night of the Living Dead premiered in movie theaters. If you painted on rocks on or before 1968, congratulations because you created history. If you painted on the rocks after that, you should be in jail.
Many of the paintings on the rocks are ship’s registries. When these ships docked in Skagway, which is the most northern point of the Inside Passage, a few lowlifes from the ship decided to vandalize 70 million-year-old bedrock. Eventually, their crime became historic. There is also a skull painted on the mountainside that allegedly represents infamous Soapy Smith and if you’re wondering who put it there, you’re not alone.
This postcard from 1945 proves that historical graffiti is really cool.
When you think about it, it’s kind of weird. If you talk to most senior citizens today, they will tell you that graffiti is gross and that those who create it should be put in jail. But 50 years ago, they were all about vandalism. Maybe they knew they were creating history.
Some graffiti is just graffiti
If you take a hard look at those paintings on the rocks, you will quickly see that most of them are just garbage graffiti with no historical value whatsoever. There are numerous paintings of people’s names like ‘Tony’ and ‘Dourdas’ and ‘Lea.’ Were any of these people arrested? Probably not.
Sometimes random people off of the cruise ships see the paintings. After buying a can of spray paint at the local hardware store, they head right over to the rocks and get to work. Many of them bring their kids, introducing them to a life of petty crime at a young age. It makes you wonder if they do this back home when they see gang tags on highway underpasses. Probably not.
The rocks are also covered with some Christian vandalism about Jesus, some New Age inspirational quotes, and a few unintelligible paintings obviously created by drunk people. Surprisingly, there isn’t one painted phallus.
A few years ago, there was a swastika painted on the rocks. It wasn’t a Nazi swastika because it faced the other way. That didn’t prevent a random tourist from getting very angry about it. Swastikas are bad for tourism so there is no more swastika. This proves that some history is good, but some history is bad, especially when it affects the bottom line. All of this random graffiti has one thing in common – it’s really ugly. Probably because it was created by people with zero artistic talent.
In the coming years, you’ll see more and more paintings on the rocks until the entire mountainside is one big collage of random vandalism. Eventually, erosion and weathering will destroy every single piece of historical graffiti art. Humanity itself will eventually die off, yet that ancient mountain will still remain. That’s some pretty deep stuff. Perhaps I’ll make some graffiti/art about it.