On May 1st 2018, Joseph McMillin, the property manager of the Oregon Theater, reached out to PSAA asking for help to beautify the building. Joseph had contacted PSAA back in 2012, but at that time, our small community advocacy group was just starting off, and not prepared to take on a project of this size. Six years later, PSAA is now a registered 501(c)3 non-profit that works to cultivate a more democratic culture of creative expression in the City of Portland. We form alliances between communities (art, business, governmental) to advocate for more equitable city policies and place-based programs, and provide diverse emerging artists access to resources, networking platforms, professional development, and paid commissioned work. We also work to engage the public in arts, by organizing multi-faceted events, interpretive tours, student internships, and panel talks. Since our founding, PSAA has spearheaded over 20 local art projects, and worked with 68 local and visiting artists. PSAA was much better equipped to help Joseph and the Oregon Theater add vibrant art to their building this time around!
PSAA has managed the painting of similar murals around town, on Alexis Foods and Clay Creative, bringing a variety of artistic styles to transform blank walls into vibrant public spaces for the benefit of the community. Even with a large following and network, PSAA is still a burgeoning local organization, with no paid staff. We operate on small budgets and rely on a lot of volunteers to make what we do happen. Sometimes our projects are supported with community donations, or commission fees, other times, the property and business owners are able to chip in to support the costs of mural making.
A few days prior to being contacted by the Oregon Theater, PSAA was notified that our longtime friend from the Bay Area, GATS was planning a quick visit to Portland the following week. Joseph wasn’t able to provide any funding for the mural work, but PSAA did not want to miss the opportunity to have GATS paint a new mural in Portland. The Oregon Theater allowed PSAA to pick the artists, so this was the obvious choice. GATS was also willing to donate their time and some supplies for this project. PSAA covered the rest, paying approximately $400 for supplies from fees we charged for other for-profit commission work.
We would like to share a bit of history about the two muralists, GATS and N.O. Bonzo and their work. Seeing the artwork is striking, but it is also important to know and understand the motivations and personal stories behind the imagery.
For 13 years, GATS, an artist from California, has brought their iconic mask imagery to blank walls all around the work. The mask, which is often likened to an octopus, represents a global identity that breaks down all barriers and prejudice. Inspired at a young age by the punk rock and skateboarding scenes, their iconic image has developed over time, and can be seen in cities and countries across the world from Jerusalem to the Philippines.
GATS focuses on painting artwork for struggling communities, such as the houseless and at-risk youth, many of whom don’t have access fine art and can’t visit galleries or museums. Last year, GATS recently painted a mural inside Janus Youth’s offices in downtown Portland. Since 1972, Janus Youth Programs has provided a second chance for at-risk youth with few resources, and no place to turn for help. In an interview with Street Roots, GATS explained:
“When you’re houseless, you don’t own a wall, let alone art to hang on it. Most people in that situation don’t browse Instagram for entertainment or feel socially comfortable hanging out in galleries. A mural to someone in this situation will have infinitely more meaning than someone purchasing a painting to decorate their house. I paint houseless shelters to give the building soul. Oftentimes they feel institutional. Your environment has a huge effect on your psyche. If your room looks like a jail, you’re going to act like you’re in jail. If your room feels like a home, you’re going to take pride in it. Also, when you’re low, you don’t want to be bombarded with over-positivity that comes off as insincere. I just wanted to make the place look cool without it feeling preachy. The last thing you want is to feel like you’re being judged when you ask for help. Seeing something familiar when you walk into a space makes you feel like you’re in the right place.” [Street Roots, 4/20/17]
GATS is also well-known in the contemporary art world, as galleries are eager to show their work. GATS has had sold-out solo shows in Hashimoto Contemporary (San Francisco), Spoke Art (Spoke Art), Takashi Murakami's Hidari Zingaro Gallery (Tokyo), and many more. They have a significant fanbase and following on social media, with even legendary street art documentarians Martha Cooper and Herny Chalfant being followers and amongst their gallery show audiences. Every time a new GATS artwork goes up in a city, a flurry of art lovers and photographers scurry to go see and document the work. The character is a true symbol of universal humanity and grassroots resistance that tens of thousands of people around the world identify with.
Local Portland artist N.O. Bonzo has been painting with GATS for over a decade, here in Portland and in cities across the Pacific Northwest. N.O. Bonzo is a notable and highly respected artist and printmaker in her own right. Her work focuses on anti-fascist imagery, women's resistance, environmentalism, sex worker rights, and police/prison abolition. N.O. Bonzo’s strikingly beautiful style often focuses on powerful female imagery often adorn with local and medicinal plants. She is known for her meticulous attention to detail, mixing her own homemade vegan inks, inlaying gold leaf, and even painting with rust. In 2014, she hosted a gallery art show at Portland’s Upper Playground called “Drowntown” raising awareness of Portland’s epidemic of depression and suicide. The red string held by the women in the Oregon Theater mural, are a nod to weaver and spinners guilds.
In a recent local interview, she described her personal experiences and the motivations behind her artwork:
“I think a lot of us who are drawn to doing this work, do so because we in some way have these overwhelming personal experiences and dominant cultural narratives telling us we don’t matter and no one values us. I came from a lot of trauma and domestic violence, and pretty early on saw the state’s unwillingness to intervene in that violence, and the communities’ (at that time) inability or lack of concern around disrupting it. A lot of the organizing and work I do nowadays surrounds community intervention and support around domestic and sexual violence. Most of my pieces are highly personal in ways that for me are easiest to communicate visually. I draw the people I do because you don’t often see women portrayed in anything other than highly consumable and passive objects. The only place you’re ever going to find folks who are telling their own stories in city space, is with the traditional and modern mural artists, graff writers, and street artists. I want to see folks who experience marginalization getting up and taking space in completely unapologetic and challenging ways in whatever feels best for them. For me the space that I’m drawn to challenge those dominant narratives, is on city property.” [It's Going Down, 8/16/16]
Portland Street Art Alliance is honored to work with these two immensely talented and passionate artists, and we are thankful to the Oregon Theater for allowing this artwork to be shown on their walls and providing us a canvas to create new public art in the City of Portland.