Beaufort News

Charleston gum vandals put city in sticky situation

CHARLESTON -- A rainbow of petrified goo is spreading up Market Street as defiant gum-chewers expand the canvas for their sticky folk art along one of Charleston's main tourism corridors.

It all started several years ago when people began plastering wads of used chewing gum on three utility poles at the entrance to the City Market. The fad stuck. Soon, the 'gum poles' were adorned with hundreds of lumpy clumps.

Looking to spruce up the area, the city had these monuments to mastication steamed and scraped to bare wood last year. Officials even tacked up little signs warning gum-stickers of $1,000 fines for defacing public property.

The result: People left their sticky nuggets all over other poles in the area.

These gumball artisans grew more creative in the process. Consider the state's initials formed in chewing gum about 9 feet up one pole. Or look at the multicolored smiley face fashioned from other lip-smacking treats.

The poles' allure as pop art is undeniable. Several passersby paused on Monday to ogle the poles, offering assessments from "cool" and "bizarre" to "embarrassing" and "disgusting."

North Carolina newlyweds Paul and Kaity Leechford even snapped some photos of a gum-encrusted pole near Anson Street as a memory of their Charleston honeymoon.

"It's just odd," Kaity Leechford said. "You don't see something like this every day. You don't want to look at it, but you do."

Krystal Koozer, a hostess at Aromas restaurant, has seen people come to Market Street just to take photos of the pole near her workplace. "Of all the amazing things in Charleston to see, why would you want that?" she said. "I don't get it."

The attraction has long since worn off for Cile Nelson, a vendor who sells handcrafted woodwork in the Market. She's ready to run out and chase off the next person she sees sticking gum on a pole.

"I don't like it at all," she said. "It's nasty and it's tacky. Charleston is such a beautiful, classy place. Why would you want to deface it?"

City officials aren't thrilled with the sticky shafts either, particularly since the Market is in the midst of a $5.5 million renovation to make it more inviting.

Jonathan Oakman, Charleston's director of business services, said the city spends $200 a month to have a contractor keep the original gum poles free of gluey gobs. The contract, however, doesn't include all of the poles in the Market area. The city will have to review its strategy in light of the expanded problem, he said.

Susan Griffin, city business services project manager, said officials also have been appealing to merchants, residents and visitors to help keep the poles gum-free.

"It's very unsightly, very unsanitary and we are trying to change the mind-set about it," she said.

City officials vowed in 2008 to have Charleston police issue citations to any gum-smacking perpetrators they caught defacing poles. On Monday, however, police could not recall arresting or citing anyone for gum-related crimes against property.

Oakman wasn't surprised, given the difficulty of catching someone mid-stick.

"If you think about it, you could probably put gum on a pole in a period of two seconds," he said. "Someone would literally have to be on top of them to catch them in the act, and even then you might not notice."