TAMPA — It's a Tampa tradition.
For decades, college and prep school rowing teams coming here for winter training have left their marks along the Hillsborough River seawall.
Sneaking out late at night, they painted barn door-sized squares of Princeton orange and Georgetown blue just above the waterline. They added team names ("Berkshire Bears!"), slogans ("Bury them") and inside jokes ("Rowing w/the fastest girls in town").
During the years when Tampa all but ignored the river, the school graffiti was okay. But now that City Hall has spent millions on the Riverwalk, it wants a different look for the most high-profile stretch of the trail.
So with the next section set to open in January, graffiti north of the Kennedy Boulevard bridge has been targeted for sandblasting this month.
That's one of the most visible stretches of team logos, and it has its fans. Some like the way the graffiti establishes Tampa's connections to far-flung centers of the sport. Some like to see the designs morph and change as teams paint and repaint. Some say it adds charm to the city.
"It feels like a place that people have used for something that's fun and productive and exciting," said Jay Alver, 21, a Harvard University senior who rowed on the Hillsborough while growing up on Davis Islands. "It's not like something artificial that somebody brought in. It feels like it grew up organically over time."
However beloved, the tradition has started to splinter, Tampa officials say. The wall to be sandblasted also has been painted by several fraternities as well as vandals with no apparent group ties.
"It's seems like over the last few years, more and more people have gotten involved in it," said Bob McDonaugh, Tampa's administrator of economic opportunity. "This is just an opportunity to get it cleaned up at one time."
In its place will go a new public art initiative similar to the "Agua Luces" lights installed on Tampa's bridges over the Hillsborough River in 2012. But these lights will be installed underwater, in the 20 to 30 feet between the Riverwalk and the seawall. As pedestrians pass by, motion sensors will change the color of the lights.
The city has no plans to scrub the graffiti from other seawalls.
"That's just one span," said Donna Chen, director of marketing and communications for the nonprofit Tampa Downtown Partnership. "You still have plenty of other graffiti art that's still in place and still intact."
Removing the graffiti will cost $80,000, with the cost split between the city and the nonprofit Friends of the Riverwalk.
On Thursday, the City Council will consider an agreement to give the Friends of the Riverwalk and its contractor, Anchor Sandblasting, access to the Riverwalk north of Kennedy for "cleaning and painting to remove staining and defacement," a memo to the council says. The work is expected to take two to three weeks.
The new public art, being done as part of the Lights on Tampa 2015 program, was designed by Wannemacher Jensen Architects.
And now that the city is bringing its own art to the seawall, officials say they will seek to have anyone who "defaces" the seawall or bridge by Kiley Garden and Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park fined for the costs of removal.
Historically, authorities have said the graffiti constituted "criminal mischief," but incidents involving law enforcement have been infrequent.
In 1987, three guys from Penn paid a small fine after being arrested while dangling a teammate over a bridge to paint a hard-to-reach spot. And in 1997, a women's team from Princeton got in trouble after a Tampa Tribune security guard caught them painting the west seawall next to the newspaper's offices.
Removing graffiti is not unprecedented. In 2009, construction of Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park entailed putting in a new seawall that eliminated some team tags. In 2012, bridges that were popular spots for graffiti were painted as part of the city's effort to light up the bridges at night.
Telling rowers to stow the paint brushes is nothing new, either. The nonprofit Stewards Foundation, which coordinates visits by more than 20 college teams a year, is warning the teams that the city will take legal action against anyone caught.
For the past two years, the Stewards Foundation has included a fine in its agreements with visiting teams: Get caught painting graffiti, and your organization will pay $2,500 or the costs of removal, whichever is greater.
"It's not cheap," Stewards Foundation president Tom Feaster said. When Tampa's waterfront was industrial, graffiti was one thing. But Feaster said he supports City Hall's efforts to bring more activity to the river, so now rowers should not be painting it. And since the fines went in place, he said, they haven't.
"They're getting the message."
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times