The Free Expression Tunnel at N.C. State University is a campus landmark. The 130-foot-long tunnel was constructed in 1939 as a pedestrian throughway, but has been an emblem of free speech on campus since the late 1960s.
Anyone is allowed to paint its walls, floor and ceiling, as well as the retaining wall at the south entrance. On any given day, the tunnel is a mad riot of proclamations, announcements, murals, tags and spray-painted graffiti art. Campus authorities don’t monitor or maintain the tunnel, although there are CCTV cameras around for security.
Photographer Michael Ligett – also a lecturer in NCSU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering – has been documenting the ever-changing art in the tunnel for more than a year. His first public exhibition of photos, titled “Free Expression,” runs through May 26 at Raleigh’s Roundabout Art Collective. The exhibit will feature 27 of the more than 3,000 photos Ligett has shot in and around the tunnel.
On a recent Sunday afternoon at the tunnel, Ligett set up his camera and spoke about photography, free speech and the nature of extremely temporary art.
Q: How did you get interested in photographing the tunnel?
I teach on campus and as a result I walk through here all the time. So one day I just brought my camera and started to shoot. Since then it’s just turned into kind of a passion. If I wake up in the middle of the night, I’ll come out here. Like this morning, I came by at 2:30 a.m. and shot for an hour.
What’s amazing, and what caught me in the first place, is that it’s different every time. Sometimes I come here at 5 at night. I come back in the morning and every single thing I’ve shot has been painted over and replaced.
I’ve got some interesting shots where I’ve carved into the paint and exposed all the layers. (Ligett cuts out a small chunk of the wall with a putty knife.) It’s amazing. I call it art-eology. You can see all the layers; it’s excavation of art.
Q: With the murals and the more artistic stuff, is there a system or ethic about painting over things? Are there any rules?
Well, there are several subcultures going on here. There’s the community bulletin board aspect: announcements by clubs, groups, fraternities, sororities, Future Farmers of America or whatever. That tends to be the least respectful. They’re not into the art at all. They’re just looking for the prime space to put their message.
Then there’s this culture of artists that seem to want to paint over other people’s work on purpose. They want to have the top tag. So they’re going to find somebody else’s art and they’re going to tag over it.
But there definitely is a respectful art community. I was here watching one of the guys last week and he was working on a big piece down on that end. Another crew came up; they actually had a fire extinguisher full of paint. They were gonna come through here and just blast the tunnel. But they looked at his work and were like, “Dude, that’s such good work. We’ll just go down here.”
Q: They use fire extinguishers?
Yeah, they fill it with paint and pressurize it. It just splatters everywhere. Ceiling, floor, the entire thing. About two weeks ago, someone came through and just painted it all white, the whole tunnel. Everybody just started over again.
Q: So if you paint something, you have no idea how long it will last?
Absolutely, they don’t know if it’s going to be hours or days. The best art tends to last longer. I mean, there have been some masterpieces out here – 20, 30, 40 feet long that take eight hours to 24 hours to finish. Those tend to last, but still just a couple of days, not even a week.
This is a must-see stop for students when they bring their parents or friends here from off campus. They like to show off the fact that this tunnel exists where anybody can paint anything, so long as it’s not hate speech.
Q: Were you interested in this stuff, graffiti art and tagging, before you started this project?
Not a bit. I was interested just in capturing just the graphic nature of the art. But then I started meeting people and talking to them, and they’re a very interesting, very diverse group of people. One of the guys works in construction; he’s about to go into the Marines. Another guy is in transportation; he drives a party limo. He’d love to do murals for commercial buildings, but you know, how are you going to make a living at this?
The three guys I know well, I’ve photographed them and they’re in the exhibition. They only paint here, so they’re not afraid about being traced to other illegal graffiti. Other guys might paint around town on walls and buildings, so they’re afraid they might get tracked down.
Q: Why the exhibit? What will we see there and what is the goal?
I want viewers to experience the free-spirited nature of the tunnel through the exhibit, to feel a connection to the artists and to appreciate the artistic value of the graffiti. I want the exhibit to bring forth the entire range of emotions that are expressed daily on the wall, from anger and rage to humor, whimsy and love. I want viewers to feel what the artists felt when they created the art.
Q: Have you ever felt threatened coming down here in the middle of the night?
No, not really. It’s the skateboarders you have to worry about. They like to zoom through here. If I’m sitting here with my tripod they’ll come through at about a hundred miles an hour then do this acrobatic thing where they flip off and catch the board.
Q: Have you been run over?
No. Well, not yet.