Tagged Downtown: Engine 556 gets hit by graffiti on the park strip

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The retired steam locomotive resting at the corner of 9th Avenue and E Street on the Delaney Park Strip was vandalized via graffiti tag, and getting that paint off could prove to be more difficult than usual.

It is not yet known exactly when the graffiti was painted or how long it has been there, however as of this filing, the tag remains adorned on the side of the rear car. Though the font is stylized, it seems to spell the word “AMEN” in a stylized tag, or mark denoting a graffiti signature.

Agents with the Graffiti Buster Program are traditionally called to spray sites of graffiti if the tag is on municipal land, however with this case the traditional cleaning approach might not be possible, according to Maeve Lavter, the senior park planner with the Parks and Recreation department within the Municipality of Anchorage.

This is due to the type of paint, or more accurately, sealant, which coats the train. “The paint that we used on the train is a very special paint, and the graffiti may not come off with our normal graffiti cleaner kit,” Lavter said. “It’s a certain kind of material that we use to remove it, and we have to be careful with the train, because we don’t want to have any weak points in the façade.”

The façade, Lavter said, was part of a “good happy medium” that the muni decided on after a fundraising campaign to restore the train less than two years ago. Lavter was one of the people that oversaw the restoration of Locomotive 556, a historical steam engine built in 1943 for wartime service. Lavter said 556 was then used as a workhorse, running through the original Alaska railroad.

It was put on the park strip, at its current location, all the way back in 1959, and used as an “educational display or an object of play for over three generations,” Lavter said.

By 2012, the train was beginning to be worn down, and actually deemed a “hazard” by the municipality. “There were chunks of asbestos that were flying off of it, and it was all rusted out, so there was rust, and there was lead paint, and we couldn’t have people climbing on it, especially children. All the railing that made it accessible was starting to rust out,” Lavter said.

The department attempted to raise the one million dollars needed to bring the train back to acceptable standards for public interaction, including the costly effort to remove the public health problems.

The fundraiser wound up reaching $250,000 instead. “We didn’t have enough money to do the project, so we had to rescope it,” Lavter said. The alternative wound up with utilizing the funds to clean and coat the train in epoxy, to create more of a monument, avoiding some of the cost associated with making it suitable for people to climb on.

Due to this epoxy, the methods normally used to clean graffiti may not be suitable for the train. Lavter said the train will need to be inspected to determine how to best clean the tag off.

Procedures are in place for Graffiti Busters to take care of graffiti as it gets reported. The municipal website for the program estimates “the average amount of calls taken in a year is anywhere from 600 to 800” which each take “about two to three hours” to clean.

However when it comes to the train, it is yet to be seen how long this tag will take to be removed. Lavter said they’ll address it as soon as possible. While Lavter noted her disappointment that someone would deface the locomotive monument, as it is a project close to her heart, she said she does see artistic value to some graffiti.

“There’s definitely an art factor for graffiti, and we’ve been talking about maybe having a wall that could be dedicated to graffiti, so people could express themselves. […] It can definitely be beautiful, and there is a place for graffiti, it's considered an art by so many people," Lavter said.

Usually, however, the graffiti that is addressed by the Graffiti Busters is not of the artistic variety, and is instead more obscene.

Lavter said the muni sees a lot of what she described as “not the healthiest of artwork” on playgrounds, which is removed with a higher priority due to the nature of that graffiti and its placement.

While the tag on Locomotive 556 isn't exactly profane, Lavter said it doesn't have a place on the side of the historic machine. "There’s that fine line between what’s destruction versus what’s artistic, and what's an appropriate place for it. So we try to balance that,” Lavter said.

As for finding the culprit of the "AMEN" tag, that could prove difficult unless it is recognized. Anchorage Police have been made aware of the marking and are responding to it as of this filing.

This is a developing story and will be updated when more information becomes available.