When joggers on Kelly Drive saw Zack Bird standing next to a graffiti-ridden wall, paintbrush in hand, they let loose an angry shout.
“I could hear somebody say ‘Hey!’ and I turned around and thought ‘OK, as long as it’s not cops,’ and I just kind of ignored them,” he said.
Standing there for a few more minutes, they soon realized he wasn’t adding further insult to the decades-old stone wall – he was restoring it.
“At first, they thought I was up to no good, but then they realized I was painting it out,” he said.
Bird, a faux and mural artist, is on a mission to clean up an influx of graffiti in and around Fairmount Park and the Wissahickon Creek. He’s painting over the tags, matching the surrounding rock’s color and aging to return them to their original look.
The Germantown native says he used to play in the park as a kid and got frustrated over recent tagging on walls, bridges and even trees and rocks. Bird said after sulking about the blight, he decided to grab a few cans of paint and use his skilled-eye to erase the graffiti.
“I was thinking, 'You know what, I can go fix this,'” he said. “I did it one day and it felt great. The feeling you get after doing a little service like that is incomparable.”
After the first restoration, Bird says he was so energized he decided to do more. In the past few months, he’s completed seven projects – removing dozens of graffiti tags around the park.
“Usually I’ll go out to do one, and I’ll see something over my shoulder and go do that too,” Bird says. “I am trying to beautify the city and the perspectives you get in the park.”
To achieve an authentic stone look, Bird says he first uses paint samples to find the closest color. He then uses liquid tints to adjust the indoor paint for his use.
“I have to frequently darken them…and take out the color to make it a more natural color,” he said.
Bird says the paint is better than power washing or sandblasting because he's able to retain the structure's aged look -- wear that can be lost by using the other removal methods.
The 43-year-old honed his faux skills at Philadelphia’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He calls the graffiti removal his “hobby” and doesn’t get paid. For a day job, Bird paints murals in homes and Palm Restaurants around the country.
“The payment I get is this wonderful sense of pride when I drive through the park and there’s no graffiti,” he says.
Bird concedes graffiti is part of any big city and says he’s not waging a war on graffiti artists, but is asking them to choose another canvas.
Philadelphia as a whole has seen an increase in the amount of graffiti recently. Deputy Managing Director Tom Conway says the city’s Anti-Graffiti Network removed graffiti from 126,000 properties last year. That’s a jump of 9-percent from 2011.
Conway says graffiti is a “huge problem” and believes an influx of younger people who are more tolerant of graffiti moving into the city is linked to the rise.
The city spends $1.2 million a year to run the Anti-Graffiti Network. The network has 12 crews of two that traverse the city to remove tags as quickly as possible from both public and private properties. The crews both power wash and paint on surfaces.
“The quick removal of graffiti is our best deterrent,” he said. “It’s kind of a cat and mouse game.”
Conway says he’s aware of Bird’s project and applauds his work.
“We need all the help we can get to combat graffiti,” he said. “Especially since he’s an artist and I understand he color-matches the paint very well to the surface, so he’s not going out there painting haphazardly.”
City graffiti removal is offered free-of-charge and residents can notify the network about spots either by phone or online. Conway says people are also free to take Bird’s lead.
“The more people that get involved and help us either by calling 311 and reporting graffiti or removing graffiti themselves is great,” he says.
Bird says he realizes not everyone is going to grab a bucket of paint and head to the park. He says, however, blight can be reduced in other ways – like picking up trash.
“If someone would pick up 10 pieces of trash on their jog, that would help,” Bird says. “Add a little knee bend into your exercise.”
“We all know if you use something and don’t put anything else back into it then you use it up eventually,” he said. “So a little maintenance is what we need to do as a group.”