The tunnels underneath the academic quad are getting a full white-out before the start of the fall semester, after a year and a half of no new paint.
According to Dean of Students Matthew Burns, the tunnels are usually painted yellow every few years. Orientation staff is usually responsible, as they clear the walls in preparation for a first-year painting event. During orientation week, first-years are taken to the tunnels, handed yellow and blue paint, and encouraged to leave their mark (often in the form of a handprint).
Over the summer, as every department scrambles to reset their spaces for a mostly post-COVID-19 fall, Orientation was left without the time and money to paint the walls. But facilities happened to have a surplus of off-white paint and offered up their manpower, Burns said in an email to the Campus Times.
Since the ’70s, the stretch of tunnel from Hoyt to Rettner has been a free space for both individual students and campus groups to get creative, from event advertisements to art projects. But in early 2020 all painting was halted due to concerns about poor airflow in the tunnels helping spread COVID-19, a policy that was continued throughout the 2020-2021 school year.
During the school year prior to March 2020, the tunnels increasingly became the site of heated political discussions, starting with student activists who used the space in November 2019 to paint messages discussing the state of democracy in Hong Kong, Tibetan and Taiwanese autonomy, and the Uighur genocide. In the days immediately following this incident, other students organized to cover these messages with significantly less political ones, which students in support of the original messages deemed censorship, igniting a back-and-forth.
From November 2019 to March 2020, the tunnels continued to serve as a space for political expression. The unwritten rules prior to November had been that once an advertisement was outdated, it was fair game to paint over. However, as these international controversies had no expiration date, advertisements began to dwindle.
By March, the meaning of the tunnels had changed from a space for lighthearted advertising to a venue for political discussion. And since March, they’ve remained almost exactly the same, frozen in time.
The tunnels should be fully covered in about five days, according to the employee currently painting. Although no new policies have been released regarding painting for the fall, the reset commissioned by orientation is a promising sign for the return of student painting.