Twenty miles west of the neon bluffs of the Las Vegas strip live the red and pink bluffs of Red Rock Canyon, a set of large red rock formations, sandstone peaks and walls that climb 3,000 feet into the air. Looming over the canyon is La Madre Mountain, solemnly surveying Sin City from its 8,154 perch. This National Conservation Area used to be at least a half hour drive from Vegas, requiring detours on dirt roads, so the people who made the trip were there to take in the beauty and history of a place that contains pictographs and petroglyphs, and was a part of Native American cultures dating back to the Paleo-Indians of 11,000 BC to the Southern Paiute of 900 AD.
The New York Times reports that, thanks in large part to a cluster of new housing only seven miles away, officials at the Canyon are finding graffiti cropping up on rocks, damaging 1,000-year-old pictographs in the process. One such marking, from the self-proclaimed Nasty Habits Crew, scrawled “Nevada Has Cronic,” a gang slogan, a foot or so away from mysterious line markings thought to have been created by the Paiute in 1000 A.D. On the same rock is a peace symbol from the 1980s the initials BEL from the victorian era around 1900.
Over the holidays, a 17-year-old was arrested in Las Vegas, and held, for spray painting his nickname, “Pee Wee” over yet more ancient pictographs, the local ABC affiliate in Las Vegas reported. Putting his name on the canyon, and then posting examples on MySpace and Facebook were ultimately what got him caught.
The Times reports that these Red Rocks graffiti locations took effort to reach, leading investigators to believe teenagers, and gangs, might be using these out-of-the-way places for initiations. Officials also believe that the people spray painting over these prehistoric markings know exactly what they’re doing.
“It all increased shock value and notoriety, and that’s what these guys are after,” said Scott Black to the Times, a Las Vegas Police Department detective who specializes in graffiti. “It just makes the crimes more heinous, but they see these high-profile locations as a challenge.”
So why have areas like Red Rocks, and a recently desecrated Gold Butte red rock that had genitalia drawn over ancient petroglyphs, been increasingly targeted by graffiti artists, illegal dumping, and even target shooters riddling rocks with bullet holes? One reason supported by Nancy Hall, a volunteer who’s charged with monitoring the Gold Butte area in Nevada, told the Times that these sites have become increasingly more popular, and with popularity comes more problems.
Similar issues have been coming up at other conservation areas and national monuments, with impossible assignments for officials who are asked to cover tens of thousands of acres of land by themselves, making catching anyone in the act extremely unlikely.
“There is a general lack of awareness that these are protected,” Danielle Murray, a spokesman for the Conservation Lands Foundation, told the Times. Her office checks on protected land throughout the country. Most of these areas have little monitoring. “If something like this happened in a national park like Yosemite, there would be a big outcry from everywhere.”
There are also notions that people are using handheld GPS devices to hunt down ancient carvings, which sounds unrealistically nefarious, yet how else to explain the rash of prehistoric pictograph and petroglyph defacement?
It’ll cost $10,000 or more to remove the Nasty Habits Crew’s slogan from that slab of red rock, a months-long and painstaking process due to the delicacy of avoiding damaging the paintings and carvings. Mark Boatwright, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management, which runs the National Conservation Area of Red Rocks, told the times the graffiti was the most extensive damage that he’s seen. Contemplating the Nasty Habits Crew’s red and black spray paint alongside of the other markings from 30, 111, and 1,000 years ago, he said, “I suppose if you really want to twist it you could say this eventually might be a sign of the times, too.”