On the Art of Camouflaging Rocks

By Nick Schou   |   July 30, 2020
Now you see it

After moving north to Montecito from Long Beach 10 years ago so that his family could be closer to the mountains and the sea at the same time, Tim Sulger began hiking the local canyons above his home near Westmont College. A decade into what has become a near daily routine, the daytime options trader says he’s witnessed the gradual evolution of the front country, including the shattering changes two years ago when many of the canyons were scorched by wildfires and scoured by massive debris flows.

Mike Sulger next to one of his camouflaged rocks

“It’s my church,” Sulger says of Montecito’s challenging yet increasingly popular network of trails. “I just love to go up into the mountains at all times of the year and see the changing of the seasons and the views, especially in springtime when the flowers are blooming, the creeks are running, and the waterfalls are happening. It cleanses me.”

About five years ago, Sulger noticed that someone, presumably a local teenager, had spray painted his initials on a massive rock face less than a mile from a trailhead. After taking pictures of the graffiti and notifying authorities, he felt compelled to take matters a step further.

“I couldn’t believe some kid would feel entitled to go out into nature and spray paint his fancy initials,” he related this week while sitting outside Pierre Lafond with a cell phone full of before-and-after photos of defaced boulders.

At first, Sulger says he went to work on the rock with a graffiti removing solution, a rag, and a wire brush. Unfortunately, the limestone proved too porous and the paint couldn’t simply be scrubbed away. “You just can’t get it off,” he said. “My knuckles were raw from that.”

So Sulger says he chipped off a small portion of the rock and took it to a paint shop, where he found three colors that, when combined, might somehow help camouflage the graffiti. “I have a pretty good eye for color, he explains. “I’d spray some color over it, then step back, and could still see it. So then, I’d get another color and dust over it and try to camouflage it until it’s gone. You spray into the wind and dust the rock and feather it on the edges so it disappears.”

According to Sulger, he gradually learned to dapple the rock with spray paint rather than coat it. “If you hold a can of spray paint right up to the rock, people are going to be able to see it,” he says. “So you hold it back and dust across the rock, and it blends it in. I’d use different colors and dust across the rock.”

Now you kind of see it

It’s also important to vary the palette. “I knew it couldn’t just be one color,” he elaborated. “It was just too monochrome, so I’d bring in another color, and then another, and then made it thicker in areas, lighter in areas, and darker in areas, and feathered the whole thing so it matches the rock.”

Occasionally, fellow hikers would spot Sulger at work and mistake him for a vandal, he says. “People see me with the spray paint and ask me, ‘What are you doing?’ and then they stop and clap and say, ‘Thank you.’ But I’m not doing this for that. I’m doing it because it’s so beautiful up there and some punk is spraying his initials.”

Recently, and just down the road from his house, someone painted a whimsical-looking stick-figure Bodhi Tree, which looked great until other would-be artists saw that as an opportunity to decorate the entire surface area with various slogans and other senseless graffiti. So Sulger says he took photos, sent them to city, county, and state officials and even stuck a note in the nearest mailbox in case the property owner wasn’t aware. Then, he matched the wall’s natural color at the paint store and returned to work his magic.

“People were driving by and thanking me,” he recalls. “Then this one lady says, ‘Oh, what are you doing, it was so beautiful.’ I just wanted to go stop her and go with her to her house and say, ‘I’d be happy to recreate this for you on your garage door, or front door, or living room, wherever you want, on your property.’ But it’s just not appropriate to have all this out here on this wall.”

Now you don’t

Although he didn’t get the chance to have that conversation, Sulger says he proceeded to dapple the wall with a panoply of color until all the offending graffiti was sufficiently camouflaged. Since then, he adds, nobody has complained or tried to re-paint the wall.

“If you let graffiti stay there, more people feel like they can add to it and it becomes a problem,” he reasons. “I’ve seen beautiful artwork all over the world, like in Berlin, where you see stuff spray painted on a wall, but it’s done by artists making a political statement. Some of that stuff is beautiful, but there’s a time and a place for everything.”

Google “rock camouflage” and you’ll find links to everything from deer blinds to fatigue shorts and fake rocks to hide your keys, but no reference to Sulger’s take on the concept. Without realizing it, and mainly out of a sense of anti-graffiti activism rather than any deliberate creative impulse, it’s possible Sulger has pioneered a new form of outdoor guerrilla art.

He’s too humble to admit that, though. “It just popped into my head,” he said. “I tried scrubbing and that didn’t work, so then I figured I could try something with paint.”

Yet Sulger does believe his creative solution to graffiti has something to do with the current zeitgeist. “Right now, with COVID, there are a lot of people stuck at home, and they’re riled up and spray painting their slogans everywhere,” he says.

One particular location that Sulger says is rife with graffiti is a drainage ditch above his home. But the spot is off the road and visible to nobody, so Sulger doesn’t touch the paint. “It’s a whole art fest up there,” he adds jokingly.

And all the blue markings on boulders along the trail that are left by surveyors or workers on clearing the trails or building debris nets? Sulger leaves them alone as well. “They remind me of all the hard work that has been done since the debris flow, so to me those markings are an homage to all they did and I’m not going to cover that up.”


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