Covered in Rust, Paint, and History: The Carrie Furnace Graffiti Project

  • Photo: Nicole Scalissi
  • Photo: Nicole Scalissi

Covered in Rust, Paint, and History: The Carrie Furnace Graffiti Project

Once a heat-swollen, record-setting producer of iron for US Steel, Pittsburgh’s Carrie Furnaces is now a bony relic of the American steel industry, a salvaged monument to the sweat that built the region, and – amazingly – an expansive collection of graffiti.

Starting in 1978, the furnaces were turned off, cooled down, and dismantled – piece-by-massive-piece – for sale, scrap, or theft. When the access roads to the time-clocks were shuttered and no one was looking, Carrie would accumulate not just dust and oxidation, but aerosol paint, Sharpie, and oil stick – the colorful images, throw-ups, initials, and characters composed by daring graffiti writers who slipped through the gates and trees to paint the remaining structures, the behemoth and bizarre architecture of industry. Rustic and discreet, the site became a popular site for local and national graffiti artists looking for open, challenging spaces for their work. Their early window-breaking, quiet-sneaking, and furnace-scaling efforts resulted in a “collection” of spray-can art that would never have survived the publicly accessible walls and doors of any city.

With the Monongahela along one side, and raised train tracks up the other, the once-industrious furnaces were cut off from Pittsburgh. Preserved by this geographic obscurity, the accumulated paint tells not just the story of Pittsburgh’s graff culture, but of an artistic community that ducked (necessarily) quietly under the official radar across the United States. No public audience, they wrote for themselves – to each other, to themselves, for the sake of doing. No “buffing” squad regularly visited the site to remove tags from the forgotten site, and with relatively low police supervision, pieces could take longer to paint and remained on the wall for longer. With expansive surfaces uniquely shaped for producing molten metal, little supervision once inside, and the security that once your work was up the only threat it faced was the tag of another writer: what would be possible?

Not just a set of blank walls, or a “gallery” of and for graffiti, Carrie was a lab, a space of experimentation for local and traveling artists. The paint on Carrie, then, is not just a history of the furnaces, or Pittsburgh’s industrial heartbreak, but a story about how the graff community developed as a larger, integrated phenomenon. Carrie is the setting; the coast-to-coast network and the artistic developments they initiated here are the story.

To tell the narrative of Pittsburgh’s oasis for spray-can experimentation and production, and to reveal how the city was part of a larger network of graffiti artists, researchers in the History of Art and Architecture department at the University of Pittsburgh are dusting off old photographs, tracking down graff artists, and talking to former steelworkers. This small team of undergraduate and graduate students are collecting oral histories and researching this extraordinary history in partnership with Rivers of Steel, the artists, and the workers who made the site what it was in the first place.

Now about one-third of her original hulk and sprawl, Carrie rests in the shade of the trees lining the bank of the Monongahela. The access roads have been reopened to visitors who come to see the 92-foot blast furnaces on tours led by former steelworkers. The overgrowth has been pushed back, the collapsed structures secured. Some of the graffiti she accumulated over the 80s and 90s remains, but writers no longer tumble over the train tracks to paint without permission. Rivers of Steel, the preservation and community history organization that has operated the site as a protected National landmark since 2006, continues to embrace this layer of Carrie’s history by preserving some of the historical graffiti and by inviting international contemporary artists to paint legally in designated spaces. The wall on Carrie’s riverside is less a barrier and more of a gallery, a growing sample of diverse work of artists from around the world.

As we conduct this research and develop an online exhibition over the coming months, keep up with our progress here on Pitt’s Constellations Blog.


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