Graffiti binge took high school rivalry too far, residents say

Police responded early Saturday morning to reports teenagers were vandalizing a train trestle in Sydney River, a site students from Sydney Academy and Riverview High School have painted for years.

'It was just a big mess. It was vandalism for sure,' says Coxheath resident

New graffiti was visible Saturday morning in Coxheath. (Wendy Bergfeldt/CBC)

Steven Smith was driving through Sydney River, N.S., Saturday morning when he saw the first bits of graffiti — a big blue "SA" spray painted on a recycling bin.

The initials stand for Sydney Academy, a high school that has a long-standing rivalry with Riverview High School.

For years, students from both schools have painted a train trestle that borders Sydney River and Coxheath, tagging it with their school colours and painting over the other school's name. But this time, Smith said the graffiti went too far and was spread across a kilometre. 

The bridge painting traditionally had only been confined to the trestle area, but overnight sidewalks and bins were tagged and spray painted. (Steven Smith)

"It was just a big mess," said Smith, who lives nearby.

"People will argue until they're blue about the tradition of painting the trestle but this was just in my opinion vandalism all the way around."

Police investigation

Cape Breton Regional Police were called to the trestle at 2:15 a.m. Saturday after getting a reports teenagers were spray painting it.

Staff Sgt. Phillip Ross said when officers arrived the group of teens dispersed and some returned later to continue spray painting. He said police did regular patrols to prevent this from happening.

Police made no arrests, but Ross said they will be working with school officials on Monday in hopes of identifying the students involved.

Profanity and swastikas among graffiti residents saw on Saturday morning. (Steven Smith)

Ross said what the teens were doing was a dangerous thing and he worries someone could get hit by a car. 

"There's traffic passing under that overpass all the time. It's very busy there," he said. 

Swastikas, damage to grass

Smith said the graffiti included two swastikas and appeared to begin at Riverview and continued to the Cape Breton County Arena, Keltic Drive along every sign and sign post and curb leading to the train trestle.

It stopped at the Burger King in the Sydney River Plaza, Smith said. He took about 75 pictures. 

"'Sydney Academy for the win' was on there a few times, to profanity, to just plain old spray paint where they were just emptying the contents of their can and paint rollers down the sidewalk," said Smith.

Grass torn up outside the Cape Breton County Arena near an "SA" tag. (Steven Smith)

Smith said there were signs vehicles tore up the grass in front of the arena.

"It's unsafe, it's private property. Painting the trestle is a thing they did in the past and I think it needs to come to an end. It's an eyesore, it's not artwork, it's not a rivalry anymore," said Smith.

"It just needs to stop."

Steven Smith came across the graffiti while driving his wife to work on Saturday morning. (Steven Smith)

Teens clean up

Around mid-day Saturday, a group of teens were at the site trying to clean up the graffiti.

Ian Brodie, an associate professor of folklore at Cape Breton University who has lived in the area since 2005, said the tradition of painting the bridge dates back 36 years as part of a "good-natured rivalry" between the two high schools. 

Graffiti around the trestle is a 36-year-old tradition, according to a Cape Breton University professor. (Steven Smith)

The painting is usually only done on the trestle and the immediate areas around it, Brodie said. This time he said there was more paint on the road.

"They basically took this thing that had been a benign expression and kind of ruined it for a lot of people," said Brodie.

Brodie said the event usually involves graduating students from one of the schools organizing how to paint the bridge. 

Discarded spray paint can along trail of graffiti. (Steven Smith)

"In discussions I've had with students who have participated they have learned this from the year previous, there's actually a lot of effort and thought that goes into making it safe, making it expedient," said Brodie.

There's also a more tender side to the tradition, he said. In years past, after the paint night a memorial goes up to commemorate a young person from the area who died.

"Just like in other communities, you'll often have roadside crosses. People who knew the person will come and they will paint the bridge and it will become a memorial for about a month," said Brodie.

With files from Richard Woodbury