Thursday, October 6, 2022 Oct 6, 2022
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The Painted Word

In 2012, Dallas launched a “free wall” program for graffiti artists. More than two years later, we’ve got just one.
By Bradford Pearson |

One day in June, Kirk Garnett headed out past a sheet-metal shop, a panaderia, and stray dogs to 621 Fabrication Street. The building sits in West Dallas like a Technicolor lava lamp on an otherwise drab side street, every free inch covered in spray-painted portraits, rudimentary tags, and bubble letters.

In 2013, the city declared that the building would be a “free wall,” a place for graffiti artists to paint without fear of arrest. Since then, the building has become a canvas for the city’s artists, some worthy of galleries, some barely worthy of the back of a notebook. When Garnett, an artist himself, met with the city to help launch the wall, he never could have imagined what he’d find that day in June: a church group, with maybe 30 kids, painting the walls. The plan had worked.

“A baseball player can go to the park and play baseball,” Garnett says. “If you were a street artist, especially in Dallas, Texas, before this, there really wasn’t a place for that.”

The wall project wasn’t without hurdles. A stamping company nearby filed six complaints with Dallas police in the first six months, mostly for vandalism. And a burglary of the building attached to the free wall forced the landlord to open up the building completely to tagging. 

The free-walls movement has had varying results nationwide. While New York has closed many of its walls due to gentrification (a fate that will likely befall the Fabrication Street wall as well, thanks to nearby Trinity Groves), Eugene, Oregon, has erected stand-alone walls in its downtown. When Dallas announced its program in 2012, months before 621 Fabrication Street was given over to artists, it promised that the city would eventually have multiple such spots for people to paint. So far, though, there’s only one. 

Garnett is frustrated with the lack of progress. He drives the city himself, gauging property owners’ interest. He met this summer with city officials in an attempt to reenergize the project.

“There needs to be another space for people who are trying to take the next step forward,” he says. “If they don’t have that, they’ll take to the streets again.”

The limitations on where the walls can be located—away from major streets, not within certain distances of homes—has led to the plodding pace of adding new ones, says Dallas Police Southwest Patrol Division Deputy Chief Santos Cadena. But they also have to make sure the graffiti stays where they want it to. “We can’t put up a free wall where we can’t prevent the spread,” Cadena says.

As Garnett left the Fabrication Street wall recently, a mother and daughter pulled up next to the building. A photographer soon arrived. It was senior picture day, and the tags would be the backdrop.