The Free Expression Tunnel in Raleigh, Probably the Most Graffitied Place in the World

photography by: Omri Westmark

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In contrary to any other forms of art, graffiti often goes against the law, and as such, is first and foremost about conveying a personal or collective message rather than revolving purely around art. What started as a functional underground passageway across a railroad track, which links North Carolina State University's Central and North campuses, ultimately evolved into a large-scale canvas, where graffiti artists alongside passersby can freely and openly leave their mark.

Spanning over 2,099 acres, North Carolina State University is by far the largest academic institution across the Carolinas, where more than 34,000 students study in one of its 12 colleges. Historically, most of the NCSU’s classroom and research facilities were built north of the city’s railway tracks, in the aptly named North Campus. As the university expanded southwards during the following decades, student dormitories and later also dining halls, administration buildings and sport venues popped up throughout the Central Campus.

 

Born out of a basic necessity to connect the two campuses, a series of three underground pedestrian passageways were constructed in 1939 underneath the railroad tracks. After almost 30 years where all 3 tunnels have been increasingly covered with graffiti tags, an unorthodox countermeasure was implemented in 1967, when any form of vandalism was strictly forbidden all over the campus with the exception of a single place, the westernmost passageway. Renamed as the Free Expression Tunnel, the underground walkway along with a nearby wall were designated as a public canvas, where practically any person can openly spray, paint or write his thoughts on its walls.

 

Since its first authorized work in 1968, a red and white painting in honor of US veterans, the tunnel has been constantly covered with an ever-changing mosaic of street art, ranging anywhere from a simple tag to vividly colorful murals. As you can imagine, also heated political statements made their way into the walls, some of which inhabit the grey zone between free-speech and what might be considered by some as incitement. In 2008, a controversial graffiti against the then president-elect, Barack Obama, sparked a university-wide outcry as well as a secret-service investigation, putting into a real test the place’s role as a platform for unrestrained political debate.

 

After becoming one of Raleigh’s most unusual landmarks, the Free Expression Tunnel underwent a thorough refurbishment work between 2005-2006, making the passageway accessible for disabled people as well, who can now also take part in the vibrant exchange of ideas at the tunnel’s graffitied walls.