No one knows for sure how it got there, and for 20 years it has confounded monument specialists in Washington.
Spray-painted prominently on the base of the neoclassical bronze-gilded equestrian statue “Valor” on the Arlington Memorial Bridge is a single word: “dykes.”
The government tried using paint stripper to remove the word, a derogatory term for lesbians. It tried arsenic, but that only made the problem worse and left ugly purple streaks on the statue.
Now the government has enlisted the help of an Atlanta-based “object conservator,” who will try to remove the offensive word with a laser.
The removal would bring a sigh of relief to the National Park Service (NPS), which has begun hanging red, white and blue bunting over the black letters each time a motorcade or parade passes on the way to Arlington National Cemetery.
“They do a good job of hiding it,” says Catherine Dewey of the National Capital Region of NPS. “The last time they covered it was for Reagan’s funeral. We’ve had a problem with it. We’re still working on the solution.”
Designed by American sculptor Leo Friedlander, the statue was commissioned in 1925 and erected in 1951 as a gift from Italy to the American people.
The 17-foot-tall statue, which faces the Lincoln Memorial, depicts a muscular, nude, male equestrian on horseback, accompanied by an equally muscular, nude woman on foot.
So why “dykes”?
“I don’t know,” says Gordon Ponsford, the graffiti-buster who has been called in to rub out the word. “Maybe somebody thought they were two women.”
Washington is a city of monuments, and all of them are vulnerable to paint-toting pranksters bent on defacing federal property.
“It’s a huge problem,” Miss Dewey says. “There’s a lot of graffiti. Ninety-nine percent of the time paint stripper works. I don’t know why it didn’t work on this sculpture.”
Mr. Ponsford, whose clients include actress Angie Harmon and the U.S. government, has restored dozens of statues in the nation’s capital, mostly in Arlington National Cemetery.
The 46-year-old British native also has restored artifacts from the Titanic and handled the liquidation of the Arthur Andersen art collection. His fees range from $175 to $300 per hour, and he employs two conservators at his studio near Atlanta and 16 others across the country.
One of Mr. Ponsford’s recent jobs was restoring a metal ashtray that belonged to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“Just to think of all the people who used this ashtray,” he says. “Churchill, Roosevelt, Patton …” He paused. “And Ponsford.”
A day earlier, Mr. Ponsford was using a laser to remove a stubborn red-and-black fungus from the white marble amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery.
“You never know when you wake up in the morning what this day will bring,” he says.
Mr. Ponsford now faces the challenge of removing the offensive word from the “Valor” statue without creating another problem.
“One thing we learned … is that we are able to remove the paint. However, in the process it removes the oxidation on the stone and it reveals more of the purple streaking. So, you resolve one problem but have another,” he says. “Before we can pursue, we have to figure it out. The black word ‘dykes’ we can definitely remove. But I’m afraid then the word would still be there, only in purple.”
As for the offensive word, sprayed sometime during the 1980s, Mr. Ponsford says: “I don’t find it humorous. I find it disgusting.”
With that in mind, he continues to plan his attack, all the while thinking about his small place in history. “There are rewards. Knowing I’m maintaining an artifact for future generations. Two hundred years from now, someone will appreciate what I’ve done. I know I’m unique in what I do.”