November 1, 2015

The National Parks Vandalism: The Case Against Casey Nocket a.k.a. Creepytings and Others

One year ago, October 21, 2014 to be precise, Casey Schreiner, founder and editor-in-chief at Modern Hiker, broke the news of a New York hiker who was the primary suspect in a string of vandalism cases defacing rock outcrops at national parks in the western United States.  The woman under investigation by the National Parks Service, Casey Nocket, went by the pseudonym tag "Creepytings" and had documented her travels in acrylic paint, creating what is known in street art terms as "a character".  

A character is a writer's signature or visual shorthand often used to immediately identify the creator of the image. Nocket memorialised her trip out west by applying her signature character on surfaces in many federally protected locations along with a bathroom toilet or two along the way.  She then shared photographs which depicted her handiwork to followers on her Instagram and Tumbler accounts. 

As word spread through the hiking community, activists began documenting the damages either at the historical sites themselves or through electronic traces Nocket had left behind on her social media accounts. According to the US Code of Federal Regulations, it is prohibited to destroy, injure, deface, or damage national park property. Vandalism of national parks in the United States is generally categorised as a federal misdemeanour, and is punishable by three to six months in prison and a modest fine of up to $500.

As Nocket became aware of the spreading community outrage against her, she quickly removed her incriminating photos from the social media sites, but not before numerous screen shots of her character or photos of herself in action defacing federal lands had been captured and published on Modern Hiker at numerous historic locations, including

From Creeptings Tumblr
Sept, 16, 2014
•Canyonlands National Park
•Colorado National Monument
•Crater Lake National Park
•Telescope Peak within Death Valley National Park
•Joshua Tree National Park
•Rocky Mountain National Park
•Yosemite National Park
•Zion National Park

Subsequent to initial reports more graffiti, likely attributed to Nocket, were also discovered at

•Bryce Canyon National Park
•The Grand Canyon National Park
•Carrizo Plain National Monument
•Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
•Sequoia National Park

On October 29, 2014 t
he US National Park Service released a press report citing that Nocket had been identified as the primary suspect in the vandalism cases involving the first eight sites. The park service also stressed that helpful citizens should not attempt to remove the acrylic graffiti as in doing so, they might inadvertently create further damages.  The Park Service also indicated that documenting some of the specific incidences of the vandalism was time consuming due in part to weather conditions at some of the more remote locations. In September National Parks Traveler confirmed via the Chief of Public Affairs and Chief Spokesperson for the National Parks Service, April Slayton, that an investigation was still ongoing in the Nocket case but failed to elaborate further on reasons for the protracted delay.

Why has Nocket's tagging history for posterity case been dragging along so slowly?

The answer may lie with the fact that Nocket chose to leave her indelible footprint on rocky outcrops in national parks, whose territories cover Utah, Colorado, Oregon, California and Nevada. The cost-benefit calculus of prosecuting a misbehaving tourist for misconduct on federal land is complicated by the multiple jurisdictions where her misdeeds occurred.  For the last decade, cases involving immigration, drugs, fraud, or firearms in the United States have been the dominant federal criminal cases and make up the vast majority of felonies and Class A misdemeanours prosecuted at the federal level.  It may not ultimately be worth an assistant US Attorney's time or the governments financial resources to scrutinise a single offender with a minimal likelihood of recidivism when the costs outweigh any punishment they could possibly impose given the limitations of existing laws.  If this case does prove to be worth pursuing, the government and US Park Service will likely need to rely on experts in multiple states who can quantify the damages to all the sites involved, including the remote ones.

Image Credit: Modern Hiker
And example of a faster moving case, perhaps because it was restricted to a single location, or in light of the tagger's notoriety, is the recent vandalism case of Andre Saraiva, a Swedish-Portuguese street artist once featured in Banksy's documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop.  Saraiva's signature character normally consists of a stick-figure with a top hat, known as Mr. "A". In February 2015 he tagged a boulder in Joshua Tree National Park with an “OX”, the street artist's shorthand, reprsenting his trademark “Mr. A's” eyes.  The tag, or signature, stood for his initials.  Two months later, the piece had been removed and to put the case behind him Saraiva quickly paid the government's $275 fine for defacing the geology of a national park.  

In another recent case former Boy Scout leaders, Glenn Tuck Taylor and David Benjamin Hall, known as Utah's goblin topplers, pushed over a 20 million year old rock formation in Goblin Valley State Park. Without considering the repercussions the two brazenly videotaped their antics and uploaded a copy of the film for posterity on Youtube.  

Caught red-handed, and again in one single jurisdiction, the muscle men were quickly charged and just as quickly agreed to pled guilty.  Ordered to pay $925 in court costs, $1,500 for the cost of the investigation and an undetermined amount to erect signs in Goblin Valley warning visitors not to abuse rock formations, Taylor and Hall's legal records will be expunged upon completion of their probation.  Too bad their video will remain in perpetuity.  

But has the publicity of cases such as these reduced this type of heritage crime? Apparently not. 

September 5, 2015 Julio Perez was charged with second degree felony and criminal mischief after starting to carve his name with a car key into a 250-year-old wall in the Monks' Burial Room at the Alamo, a recently designated World Heritage site. The tag is reported to be about three inches long and one inch wide and is likely to be costly to repair. The Alamo being just one of the many historic sites damaged by tourists annually who somehow feel adding their name to the property adds to the site's aesthetic. 

October 23, 2015 It was announced that Christopher James Harp was indicted by a federal grand jury for depredation of public lands and resources under 18 U.S.C. § 1361 for damages at Rabbit Island to a large rock outcropping in the Sequoia National Forest, once home to a large Tubatulabal Indian village. An archaeologist with the United States Forest Service detected Harp's handiwork, a graffiti sprayed with black asphalt sealer over a extensive area which in addition to defacing the physical terrain had also damaged a prehistoric petroglyph of a bighorn sheep.  In committing the offence, Harp told investigators that he wanted revenge against his boss, who had talked to him in a condescending manner. The graffiti, sprayed in drunken outrage, included a phone number inviting people to call his colleague for a sex act.   Native American rock art is protected by NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.  

The boundaries of street art: history or vandalism or when a tag becomes one or the other.

Street art is an ephemeral and amorphous form of art, usually in urban settings, that has developed a flourishing sub-culture all its own. Considered by some a nuisance or vandalism, for others it is a tool for communicating views, asking difficult questions or expressing one’s personality or political concerns.  

The legal distinction between destructive permanent graffiti and art is permission, something Creepyting didn't have when she defaced federal park lands, nor was she likely to get. The same for Saraiva, Perez, and Harp  But the topic becomes even more complex as contemporary unauthorised works of street art receive greater social approval and become prized in spite of, or in some cases because of, the unauthorised setting where the work is placed. Often, when the work is perceived as "not hurting anyone" or when the work in question is aesthetically pleasing, as is the case with street artists like Banksy, Blu,  or C215 the longstanding public approval of their artwork trumps arguments on legality or unconventional presentation. 

But by extension, both street artists or common graffiti doodlers do not necessarily believe what they are doing is wrong, even as they know that they are engaging in an illegal act of vandalism.   They may see or in many cases justify their expressions as explorations in identity, place and becoming and hope that they will be overlooked or with a little luck, be immortalised.

In other cases, those scratching their names into sites see merit in their graffiti comparing their added touches as something akin to the spirituality of rock art like the petroglyphs at places like Columbia River Gorge or the documentation of "being there" like the writing of early settlers at Willamette Valley who chronicled their time on the Oregon Trail by marking their passage on a hemlock stump in 1867.

Alamo historic tag
Image Credit:
The Alamo Shrine in San Antonio
Ironically, incised historic graffiti, was uncovered at the Alamo during restoration tests the theory of when tagging a building is perceived as damaging and a punishable offence versus when it is celebrated as providing us with a window into our historic past. In 2011, during an extensive cleaning, plaster and paint conservators found “1802,” “WVANCE,” “TEX” and either “54” or “SA” under layers of historic grime on a wall facing just above the main entrance to the site's church. Press conferences were held and academics researching the site used the markings to try and attribute who the tagger may have been and when he may have left the marks.  Was the date the time of his posting or the year of his birth?

Examples like these underscore how today's taggers draw similar comparison's, justifying rightly or wrongly, their similarity to, or borrowing from, the examples of public scribbling done by their forefathers. What often gives today's vandal's "permission" though, often is more simple; the low probability of being detected and therefore prosecuted and convicted.

The effects of copycats. 

But the fine line between street art and wrongdoing isn't always worthy of philosophical debate. Sometimes its fairly easy to judge when something should be avoided or is just plain wrong. A quick glimpse at the handiwork by Nocket, the goblin topplers or the hundreds of tourist names inscribed on the rockface below will demonstrate that some people just don't get the idea of leaving a place better than when you found it.

By: Lynda Albertson


Her apartment/environment should be spraypainted by a random person every 24 hours. Let another artist pick the artistic theme and color scheme that they like. Hey... like this? No.. Aww, too bad it's permanent.

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