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Through thick and thin

For decades, the 34th Street Wall in Gainesville has been accumulating messages of joy and sorrow. It makes you wonder, how thick is that paint?

By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published February 24, 2006

[Times photos: Zach Boyden-Holmes]
Joel Cocciolone, a student at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, puts the finishing touches on a portrait of Bob Marley he painted on a portion of the 34th Street Wall in Gainesville.

Adam Sawyer, 21, of Gainesville, says he comes to the Wall whenever he can afford the paint, usually about once a week.
Juan Fernandez, a University of Florida graduate student in civil and coastal engineering, checksa mechanical reading of the depth of the paint covering the 34th Street Wall in Gainesville.
Jared Powell, left, and Joel Cocciolone, students at Santa Fe Community College, hope their shout-out will help “FREE QUIGLEY,” though they wonder if the money they spent on paint would be better spent on bail.
The question gnawed at Norman Sassner for 15 years. He has lived in Gainesville since 1986 and has driven down 34th Street a half-dozen times a week.

You cannot drive down 34th Street, one of the four major roads in this quirky college town, without cranking your head around to read the graffiti on the 34th Street Wall.

The Wall, 1,120 feet of concrete, arcs out of the sidewalk and rises as high as a fraternity brother with a paint roller can reach if he stands on the bumper of his car. Ivy trails over the top from the university golf course on the other side. Abandoned paint cans and rollers line the sidewalk and spill out of the trash cans.

The messages are remarkably well-organized into 45 rectangular panels more than 20 feet long each. No one touches the double-wide black-and-white one near the middle.

One day Sassner, 61, was scanning the wall at 45 miles an hour, which is not easy to do, when he had this thought: If they keep painting that wall, could the weight of the paint make the wall fall over?

Layer after layer of paint. Year after year, chronicling the history of a shifting community. Birthdays, anniversaries, book signings, lectures and keggers. Declarations of love, lust and retribution. Wins and losses. Political campaigns for student government parties no one remembers the names of anymore. Proposals for marriages long dissolved. Outcries against injustices that seemed unforgivable. Memorials to people whose names are lost to the paint, except for five.

Sassner doesn't know how long the paint has been building, but it has been at least 20 years. Depending on placement, time of year, and level of creativity, the messages might last a day or two or more

than a week. Still, Sassner thought, that's a lot of paint. How long has that wall been there, he wondered.

He wrote a letter to the Gainesville Sun. He asked: How thick is the paint on that wall?

* * *

Feb. 13, 2006

Joel Cocciolone scanned the length of the wall, impossible to absorb at once, everything from "Lodi, I think this is the start of something special," to "Stop Genocide" and "Save Darfur" to the birthdays of Lindsay, Lauren, Janelle, Ross and Jess.

The wall had beckoned to Joel since he first saw it in August, when he enrolled as an art student at Santa Fe Community College. He wondered if he needed permission (legally, yes), but didn't wonder for long.

Joel and his friend Jared Powell considered their options and picked their panel. They wanted "Stop Genocide" but someone had written "please don't paint" there.

"I can respect that," said Joel, 21. "They really feel we need to stop genocide in Gainesville."

They decided Lindsay's birthday had been celebrated long enough. Her panel would be replaced with a plea for their friend Quigley, who they said needed to get out of jail.

Joel tugged at a chunk of peeling paint thick enough to fill his hand. It looked like a book left out in the rain and felt like saddle leather. Over time huge slabs of paint have fallen or been peeled from the wall, so the surface is cratered and blistered. Joel couldn't budge the baked paint.

"I was like, man, that's a lot of paint. It was all of these crazy, beautiful colors. There could be some awesome sweet stuff under there."

He allowed himself to consider the history under those layers as they drove to the paint store.

"Maybe Steve Spurrier painted the wall and said he was going to South Carolina and never coming back," Joel said.

That would have been November 2004. Maybe 65 paint layers, at about one layer a week. History, for Joel and Jared, doesn't go back very far.

* * *

Norman Sassner's question sparked a story in the Gainesville Sun. Paint store owners and others speculated the wall could contain up to 1,500 coats of paint, each between three- and eight-thousandths of an inch. Spray paint is thinner. Estimates ranged from ? of an inch to 5 inches. It's hard to say, since the paint will swell with humidity and fall off under its own weight.

No one feared the wall would fall over.

Juan Fernandez, a graduate student in civil engineering, studies important stuff such as coastline mapping using something called geosensing. He uses lasers to detect sinkholes and earthquake faults.

Imagine his surprise when he returned from winter break and his professor told him to take his fancy laser scanners and measure paint.

"That's funnier than hell," said Norman Sassner, when told what his curiosity had wrought. "Can't they just go over there and punch a hole and measure it?"

* * *

Joel and Jared paid $53.50 for one gallon of "severe weather" latex in "Mountain Smoke" and five cans of glossy spray paint - black, red, blue, yellow, green.

"We're going to spend so much money writing 'Free Quigley,' " Jared noted, "maybe we should just get Quigley out."

Their friend Ryan Quigley was involved in a recent unfortunate altercation, they said. He was unable to run from the cops or make bail, so Joel and Jared hoped to raise money to secure his release.

They agreed to paint their simple message beside a portrait of Bob Marley. They hoped Bob Marley would be identifiable enough that people would not think their friend Quigley was a squiggly-haired Jamaican man.

"I guess I should throw up a Valentine's Day shout-out," Joel said.

"For who?" Jared said.

"I don't know," said Joel, who had dated one girl but liked another. "It's a touchy situation."

* * *

No one has compiled a history of the latex on the wall because nearly all of it is as fleeting and as fickle as Joel's love life.

Over the years the wall has chronicled the major events in the community: the departures of John Lombardi, Steve Spurrier and Ron Zook, for example. The 1996 National Football Championship, no doubt. Many, many nasty things about universities in Tennessee, Georgia and Tallahassee.

But before 1990 few people can remember what it might have said, because they can't remember paying the wall much attention.

No one, not even the Department of Transportation, can absolutely recall when the tradition began. The current wall was built in 1981, when 34th Street was widened from two lanes to four, carving out a chunk of a hill east of the road. But people who have worked for the DOT's maintenance department 30 or 40 years remember a graffiti wall in the same spot before then, said DOT spokeswoman Gina Busscher. No one knew they were creating a local landmark, she said. "We were just trying to hold the golf course back."

Most of the discussion of the wall in the early years was about whether to allow the graffiti. It's technically illegal. You can get permission from the city and the DOT, but no one ever does.

Mike Bedke, who was student body president in 1982 and is now a real estate lawyer in Tampa, used to spend summers in a friend's apartment across the street from the wall because it had air conditioning and his dorm did not.

In the '80s, the wall probably would have protested investments in South Africa, which was a hot issue with students, he said. If it existed in 1978, it might have bemoaned that year's notorious Homecoming Gator Growl featuring Helen Reddy, who nearly brought down the east stands singing I Am Woman. It almost certainly celebrated the still-discussed Growl of 1982, featuring Robin Williams and his sidekick, Mr. Happy. "I would just about bet my life," Bedke said.

In those days, the wall was finding its voice. People tried painting it white. Never lasted. They tried staking claim to permanent territory with professional-looking murals. They tried coatings that were supposed to repel future paintings. Didn't work.

One night - Sept. 3, 1990, the wee hours of a Monday morning - Adam Tritt and some friends rode out to the wall on a Honda scooter with a broken seat. They used $11 worth of paint in the cheapest colors they could buy - black, white, red - and painted the names of the victims of the most brutal murders in Gainesville's history:

Sonja Larson

Christina Powell

Christa Leigh Hoyt

Tracy Paules

Manuel Taboada

By morning, that section of the wall had become a shrine. Months went by and no one painted over the names. Sadie Darnell, then public information officer for the Gainesville Police Department, would touch up the paint when it faded, keeping five-gallon tubs of paint in her garage.

George Paules, Tracy's father, framed the panel in coquina shell. Eventually, volunteers scraped the panel down to the concrete and repainted it. They couldn't believe how thick the paint was.

"Layer upon layer," Darnell said. "Eventually we got a blowtorch."

Somehow, after the memorial, people stopped arguing so much about whether the wall should exist. It was as if Adam Tritt's panel had become something the town needed.

When the city last resurfaced 34th Street, the plan to widen the bike lane would have required tearing out part of the wall. Instead, the DOT's Busscher said, officials opted to narrow the median to protect the graffiti.

Sixteen years later, the black-and-white panel hasn't changed much. New students, who were toddlers when the murders occurred, seem to know not to paint there, even if they don't know why.

* * *

Juan Fernandez is a scientist, not a historian, so don't ask him what's under the paint.

He can tell you that panel 18 is where the paint is thickest. It's in a nice visible spot. It's good for science because the heavy paint has fallen off in chunks, leaving nearly bare spots. Juan can measure the space in between with his highly accurate Vernier calipers.

He demonstrated this recently to an assembly of reporters and photographers and his supervising professor. He seemed bewildered at his sudden celebrity.

Behind him, panel 18 was nearly impossible to read. It said "something something something" in that kind of urban lettering you can only read if you're hip and not a newspaper reporter.

Juan used two boxy laser scanners that look like kitchen-sized TVs from the 1970s. The Minolta Vivid 910 noncontact 3-D digitizer handled the fine detail, and a yellow Optech model did the broader work.

The laser scanners sent a pulse to the wall and measured how long it took the light to return. Then they computed the distance between the wall and the paint layers.

Juan also did what Norman Sassner suggested. He drilled into the paint 195 times with a Kraftech 7.2-volt cordless drill and measured the holes.

"They are complementary approaches," he said.

He made a report with lots of color charts and pictures.

"We use a little bit of math and we compute an equation for the wall," he said.

"The thickness of the paint," he said, "is about an inch."

(1.043307 inches, actually, if you read his 18-page report.)

Everyone stood around considering the wall, considering the engineer.

Over his shoulder the paint looked so thick it could fall off the wall, knock him in the head and render him unconscious. It looked like it could be 3 inches at least. He must be joking.

Juan busted out his calipers and measured to prove his point.

Two-point-eight centimeters. A few layers of paint more than an inch.

"It won't get much more than that," he said.

The across-the-wall average, he said, is .326597 of an inch. Less in the corners.

The panel where the paint is thinnest is the black-and-white double-wide near the middle. The one that with the five names that says "Remember."

The paint there is only about 1/50

of an inch thick.

* * *

Joel painted shirtless in 45-degree weather, singing along to a band called Broken Image, shaking the paint can to the beat.

Every time he messed up Bob Marley's nose or mouth and painted over it, the wall got thicker by a few thousandths of an inch.

Cars honked and he waved and he sang about always wanting to remember. When he was almost done he ran out into the right lane of 34th Street to look at what he had done.

Then Joel remembered it was almost Valentine's Day.

He flagged down a jogger. "What should I write," he asked her, "for at least a double take and an awwww?"

"I'd start with her name."

Not knowing her last name, Joel wrote, AMANDA, and then, "Will you be my Valentine?"

"How's she going see it?" the jogger asked.

"Well," Joel said, "It's a really giant wall."

He spray painted "thank you" to the jogger, signed his name, and consoled himself with the knowledge that any embarrassment he might endure would be covered in a few days by someone else's predicament, in someone else's paint.

* * *

By the time this story was written, Quigley was out of jail, his panel was only partially painted over, and Joel had gotten a giggle and an awwww from Amanda, but not a date.

Norman Sassner picked up his Gainesville Sun later with a mix of astonishment and glee. He thought the paint would be thicker too, but who cared?

He has never had his name in spray paint, but now he has had it in the newspaper, and after considerable fuss he has his answer.

See? He said to his wife. See!

- Kelley Benham can be reached at (727) 893-8848 or

[Last modified February 23, 2006, 15:44:03]

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