Perhaps the earliest recorded example of ‘graffiti’ in the City of Portland, is the Lovejoy Columns, painted by Athanasios (Tom) Efthimiou Stefopoulos from 1948 to 1952. Stefopoulos, was a Greek immigrant and a lifetime bachelor who came to the United States in 1910 hoping to pursue a career in the arts and send money back to his family in Greece. Unfortunately, even though he was an extremely talented artist, he was not able to fully pursue that dream (only working sporadically teaching penmanship and as a sign painter) and ended up working most of his life as a watchman in the northwest Portland rail yards for the SP&S Railroad Company.
During idle times in the yards, he climbed atop the boxcars and painted the Broadway Bridge Lovejoy overpass columns with whimsical images of doves, owls, lions, anthropomorphic trees, Greek mythical gods, biblical figures, and Americana. Although this was technically illegal graffiti (the word graffiti had yet to enter the popular lexicon, but it was surely in the urban environment) his art was appreciated and allowed to remain for decades.
Locals old enough to remember these columns in place say it was a like a gritty temple of industry, a real trill for the adventurous urban flâneur. To Tom, these must have been an attempt to bring a little bit of his homeland and culture into this foreign land.
Stefopoulos was fondly remembered by his community as a quiet and kind man, who frequented the local Greek grocery store on Couch and the Tacoma Tavern that he lived in a small room above. Tom lived a long life, passing away in 1971 at the age of 89.
The pillars were postcard favorites and seemed as much a part of the city’s landscape as the Hawthorne Bridge. They were immortalized in Gus Van Sant‘s opening scene of Drugstore Cowboy and Elliott Smith‘s film Lucky Three. Some of the art was lost throughout the decades (painted over by other artists and later by city graffiti abatement), but many of them were preserved for over 50 years, being naturally protected from the elements by the massive overpass.
In 1999, when urban redevelopment began to sweep through the area the 40 acre railyard and Lovejoy overpass were set to be demolished. Thanks to extensive lobbying by Rigga, a group of insurgent Portland architects and artists (led by public installation artist and James Harrison), ten of the painted columns were cut down and saved. This was a huge and expensive undertaking.
Many Portland politicians, including the now Mayor Charlie Hales, agreed that these columns were an important cultural and historical asset, but the proper resources were never dedicated to ensure their preservation. The Regional Arts and Culture Council could have added them to the city’s official public art inventory, but did not.
Luckily, thanks to one Pearl district developer, two of the best columns were re-incorporated into the new upscale urban landscape (in the Elizabeth Lo courtyard on 10th near Everett), but to this day those few remaining paintings remain encased, waiting for the will, drive, and funding to be restored and publicly display.
The other remaining columns lay in ruins in an abandoned lot near Natio Parkway. The Friends of LoveJoy Columns tried for years to protect the delicate paintings, but in the end, lack of security and the northwest weather washed away the images, which are now replaced with modern day scrawlings.
Vanessa Renwick documented much of this perilous story in her work-in-progress documentary film “LoveJoy.” The Friends of LoveJoy Column are now working to raise funds to purchase a gravestone for Tom, who is buried in an unmarked grave in Rose City Cemetery. His story is emblematic of many immigrants who struggled to find their way in Portland. His legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of many Portlanders who appreciate these small, yet powerful pieces of original insurgent public art.