The prophet Isaiah admonished the people to unlearn the ways of war and beat swords into plowshares, to transform weapons designed to kill people into useful tools for sustaining them. At Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, Washington, my son and I explored an enormous bunker that has become a bizarre, enchanted playground for children and other dreamers. It is also a haunted and haunting three-dimensional canvas for a many-layered modern art that taunts and beguiles every sense, including the sixth, the extrasensory perception that something beyond the ordinary is being engaged, threatened, or promised. I certainly felt a warning from a disturbing past that could very well become the future that will destroy us. But I also experienced a beckoning towards an alternative vision of limitless creativity and playfulness.
We explored the massive concrete bunker called Battery Kinzie on an August morning hazy with smoke from forest fires in British Columbia. Fort Worden was built because the location was in range of “potential enemy fortifications” on Vancouver Island in Canada. The smoke enhanced the extraordinary palette of the graffiti and its cover-up paints, rusting metal, and eroding cement; it also heightened a feeling of warning or danger.
It took two hundred men nearly three years to build this bunker, one of 14 artillery batteries at the fort—all named for war heroes from the Civil and Mexican wars. Kinzie originally housed two 12-inch guns on disappearing carriages that could each fire a thousand-pound shell ten miles, using 300 pounds of powder per shot.
Most of the fort’s 41 artillery pieces were dismantled and shipped to European battlefields during World War I. Thousands of men were trained at the fort before being sent to those same battlefields. It was an active army base for over fifty years, and then used as a juvenile detention facility.
Unexpected staircases curl into dark tunnels. Pungent, odd-shaped rooms lead one after another deeper into the unknown, some windowless caves, others with large gaping holes where windows used to be. Chipped concrete walls are studded with giant rusted metal rings, sudden shafts with partial skeletons of corroded and oddly threatening machinery. At the very top, two round amphitheaters rimmed with cement stairs, where the giant guns used to crouch. The sunken, low-ceilinged command room, forever scowling and scanning the sea for things to be protected from.
Ghosts everywhere. What I thought that morning, following my own son through the labyrinth: All those young men had mothers.
And endless layers of patchwork paint, in conversation with graffiti. Not a surface—wall, ceiling, ledge, pipe or metal door, was free of graffiti, and graffiti cover-up paint, topped by more graffiti. Older photos I’ve seen of Battery Kenzie show large swathes of white and light-colored paint. Which probably just provided a fresh, inviting canvas for the next layer of graffiti; now there are many colors of cover-up paint, producing an entirely new kind of art.
In his film “The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal,” Matt McCormick notes that what he calls “graffiti removal art” stems from a basic human instinct to be creative. Graffiti removal art doesn’t just paint blank walls over graffiti, it creates a mostly subconscious or unconscious art of its own, which sometimes shows true artistic genius.
There are endless layers here, each revealing something about what it means to be human. The architecture of the bunker itself is the result of a culture of war. Graffiti art is a kind of response to bunker mentality. Graffiti art removal responds to that response. And me and my camera, thinking about war and men at war and the mothers of men at war. Dreaming and praying a future where all bunkers are playgrounds covered in art.