Portland Street Art

GATS + N.O. Bonzo Mural

Portland Street Art Alliance’s (PSAA) new mural at SE 35th & Division is creating quite a stir. Located on the walls of the historic Oregon Theater, this mural was recently painted by world–renowned artist GATS (@gatsptv), and long-time local Portland artist and activist, N.O. Bonzo (@nobonzo).

Photo by @OddioPhoto 5.jpg
Photo by @OddioPhoto 1.jpg
Photo by @OddioPhoto 4.jpg

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!

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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.

 Pilsen Walls, Chicago IL

Pilsen Walls, Chicago IL

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]

 Janus Youth, Portland OR

Janus Youth, Portland OR

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. 

 N.O.Bonzo and Circleface Mural | Dekum Community Garden Portland, OR

N.O.Bonzo and Circleface Mural | Dekum Community Garden Portland, OR

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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]

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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.

Let Dreams Soar, but Not on Your Private Property

The “Let Dreams Soar” mural is located in St Johns neighborhood of Portland. This privately commissioned piece of art was recently given a stern warning by the City of Portland. The mural, created by longtime local artist, Adam Brock Ciresi was created over the span of 4 days, and depicts crows and children soaring through the sky with DIY wooden wings, under the iconic St. Johns Bridge.

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Shortly before the mural was completed, the homeowner who commissioned the piece received a notice from the City of Portland. A neighbor made a complaint to the City, simply stating “Adding murals to the house without permits. Children jumping off St. John Bridge.”

Even though there are plenty of grey areas in the City’s complicated mural code, and the fact that there are plenty of un-permitted murals around on residential properties, the City was forced to respond to the complaint and take action.

Per the City’s current laws, murals are prohibited on private residential buildings with fewer than five dwelling units. Therefore, the “Let Dreams Soar” mural was not able to be permitted since it is on a single-family house. The City ordered the owner to buff it immediately or face massive daily fines.

Ciresi tried everything he could to secure a permit before staring the mural. However, like many other artists and property owners in Portland, they thought they would just take their chances and paint. Right now, the City is technically forced to consider this mural as an illegal “sign.”

A petition to save the mural was started by local supporter. As of Sept 11th 2017, the petition gathered an astounding 6,619 signatures. Even City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly signed it – the person it was to be delivered to, as the head of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI) and BDS, the bureau of the City that oversees and issues mural permits.

Commissioner Eudaly has thankfully now stepped in more directly, putting a pause on BDS giving any citations or fines. The City hopes to figure out a way of amending the law, and make it possible to process residential murals within the current code. Working with Commissioner Eudaly and the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC), Ciresi continues to push efforts forward to find a resolution and make this change in law happen.

“It’s sort of an archaic law that we are up against,” says Ciresi. With the support of the homeowner who commissioned the mural, Ted Occhialino, and a large number of St. Johns and Portland-area residents, Ciresi is gearing up to fight this in court. “If that means we’re becoming an advocate for loosening these laws around public art and where they can and can’t be placed, then so be it. I’m ready,” said Ciresi to the news.

The City of Portland is long overdue to re-evaluate its mural laws which were created back during the early 2000s after a long legal battle following a law suit by Clear Channel. Many things have changed since then, and the phenomenon of urban street art has since exploded across the world. Portland needs to accommodate for this new and ever-evolving landscape of creativity and intervention. Along with the residential building restriction, PSAA has also asked the City to modernize and automate its mural application process, and re-evaluate the 5-year rule to allow for curated, rotating art spaces in the city.   

On August 26, 2017, Ciresi was invited to participate remotely in the Veterans of Peace Conference in Chicago, a national non-profit organization dedicated to the abolishment of war. Within the forum, Dan Shea, Veteran and Mural Coalition participant, talked about the mural controversy and the importance of mural art and activism. In the interview with Ciresi, they discussed the mural’s legal issues and the uplifting motivations behind it. “Art is something that confronts people and has a different perspective to look at and they can imagine how it would be, the meaning of it, not just the skill, but the meaning of it all,” Shea states, referring to murals and artists like Ciresi. Shea is an artist as well, and also brings up his struggle with advertising companies when it comes to painting murals in public space. Veterans of Peace identifies strongly with the situation because they see the value of landmarks. Murals show a glimpse of history that belongs to the city and support the fact that murals, just like “Let Dreams Soar,” serve the community and become landmarks for younger generations.

This situation is unfortunately not unique - censorship of street art has happened in other cities around the U.S. It sometimes only takes one complaint to put a piece of public art at risk of being buffed. 

A now famous case surrounding two murals created for Living Walls in Atlanta Georgia were removed due to a few residents finding the works disturbing, offensive, and pornographic. Living Walls is an annual gathering of international street artists aimed at uplifting the community in a city with the nation’s highest number of foreclosures. One of the murals was painted by Argentine artist, Hyuro, and depicted a nude woman with a timid non-sexual demeanor.

Three months later, Pierre Roti, a French artist painted a self-funded mural of an alligator only to have it buffed a few days later. The image of an alligator-head man with a serpentine tail that was suppose to be an allegory about the brutality of capitalism, not a statement on religion or demons, as it was perceived by some residents. “The best thing you could say about the alligator painting was that people didn’t understand it… It absolutely did not represent what people want to see on a busy street every day,” Douglas Dean, former state representative expressed.

The Department of Transportation then stated that it wasn’t an issue of artistic value, but instead it was a matter of proper permits. Living Walls works in accordance with the property owners and permits from three city departments. The City Council members say otherwise—public art ordinance requires approval of the full Council, which Living Walls did not receive, hence its removal. It was also added that the state’s public art policy prohibited works that “include any content that could possibly divide a community”—welcoming Living Walls to put up new installations as long as they meet requirements.

Monica Campana, founder of Living Walls, worried that the decision of the removal of both pieces would stir fear in artists who come each August from all over the world—“no one wants to paint a wall that is going to get painted over. We don’t think we have to paint a rainbow and butterflies to make art that represents a community.”

Another similar case unraveled in 2016, when a mural in Toronto Canada came under siege. Homeowners commissioned a local artist, Kestin Cornwall, to create a mural of Drake; the well-known rapper. Fay and Small had purchased the Croft Street house with the knowledge of it being on artistic strip, and supported community artistic expression. A few days after the piece was completed, they received a letter stating that the City had been made aware of their property being vandalized and is in violation of Toronto Municipal Code.

This story made it to local CBC Toronto News, who then contacted the City of Toronto and had them send out a spokesperson to inspect the mural. His final verdict; “It’s fine.” The City responded that when they receive a complaint, the letter automatically sends to the homeowner rather than sending out an officer each time. Fay had a different opinion on the matter; “The City shouldn’t be sending out blanket letters, sight unseen… For a city to just blindly shut down a piece of art on a street that’s deemed kind of an art-alleyway, that’s just bizarre.”

The StreetARToronto (StArt) Program Manager, Lilie Zendel, has strived to push the street art scene and to add substance and strengthen communities, as well as to help disprove negative effects of graffiti vandalism. “I think at one point [street art] was looked as being marginal and not a really legitimate art form, and now I think it’s legitimacy has been established, and in a city with a lot of cement and grey buildings—we need colour,” Zendel stated.

In 2012, in Dublin, Ireland the mural “Repeal 8th” done by Maser was commissioned by The HunReal Issues. This political mural supported an amendment to Ireland’s constitution allowing women to have abortions legally in Ireland. The mural was removed after a complaint was made to City Council, saying it was in violation of the Planning & Development Acts (2000-2015).  A petition with over 4,000 signatures that were collected in one week with the hope of receiving full planning permission from Dublin’s City Council to restore the mural. “For me, it’s important that this is seen as an artwork and we’re supporting an artist’s idea to challenge the status quo…art can be political, art isn’t just entertainment.”

These types of cases bring up questions about who decides where and what can be put into our shared public spaces? Where does the line between private property rights start and end? How can the opinion of one person outweigh the opinions of thousands? When should the City step back and leave things to a community to decide when it comes to privately-funded street art on private property?

The question of whether negative artistic stimulation to an individual automatically ends up in a city complain and then therefore ending in the result of a removal of what is a piece of priceless art, can sound baffling to some.

Consider the visual stimulation of advertisement and marketing billboards; the public has little say over their quantity and quality, however the public is bombarded with capitalist-based market stimulation and visual pollution that litters our city streets and minds. Unlike art, advertisements push us to consume, pretend, and obey, but for some reason the permits for ads often go overlooked by cities when huge amounts of money is likely being lost due to not enforcing signage laws with these companies. Why come down on private property owners and artists who are trying to uplift our community and provide it a gift? Which one is worse?

Read more about the mural controversy:

KOIN News: City wants ‘controversial’ mural in N. Portland removed

Article by Lourdes Jimenez | Contributing Writer | Portland State University.

The Black Hat Project

The Last Bus Club & InvoicePDX have recently launched The Black Hat project, with the goal of opening an innovative artistic hub in Portland. Together they strive to raise awareness and to build a foundation of artists and makers of all kind while documenting the artistic progression that’s happening in Portland. The Black Hat will serve as a local innovative artistic space; providing contemporary gallery space, artist studio space, resources, and art supplies. The project founders say that they will be offering the lowest gallery commissions in town (galleries often take a 50% cut of the selling price to pay for operations).

Chase Muromoto of Invoice Pdx & and Forest Kell of the Last Bus Club began collaborating in 2015 when they did the One Stop Shop, a pop-up parking lot art event using a painted van and pallets to create a temporary art space. They have also hosted other gallery art shows including Writer's Anonymous (2015), Inside Out at Compound Gallery (2016), and the PBR Art Design Contest Show (2016).

InvoicePDX has also published two volumes of Invoice Magazine, which features original and submitted photos of Pacific Northwest graffiti art, along with exclusive interviews with artists like GATS, GIVER, and EKOSE along with long-time graffiti photographers, like Oddio. InvoicePDX says that the magazine “provides a discrete outlet for the graffiti/art community.”

In April 2017, Invoice PDX & Last Bus Club launched The Black Hat project, and hosted a benefit show that welcomed the community by providing a free art show for all ages. Food was served by Braddah Bowls, and drink sponsors included Pabst Blue Ribbon PDX and Guayaki Yerba Mate. The event also offered live screen-printing by Tour Print, local company created by a team of designers, brand experts, merchandisers, and artists. The Black Hat project launch party also featured a special appearance from local street dance group Soul Trigger and Supreme Beings.

To promote this project, Invoice PDX & Last Bus Club collaborated with local cinematographer and creative director Jon Christoperson (@JCCinematography), who has also recently made wonderful promotional commercials for local sticker artist RxSkulls and Portland-based female street artists like @wokeface @eillegal_rose @hellokitska and @placeboeffectpdx.

#theblackhat #pdx #streetart @invoicepdx @lastbusclubclothing

A post shared by Jon Christopherson (@jccinematography) on

Josh McQuary, also known as McMonster (#tinymike), was also involved in hosting the launch party.  McMonster’s art shows a perspective of a surreal world taking images from nature, science fiction, and female anatomy. McQuary recently won the #PBRart Art Can contest and will have his art appear on a millions of PBR beer cans nationwide staring in July 2017.

New Mexico artist VELA provided event attendees with live art painting, showing his process while creating a Hawaiian-inspired piece. VELA has also been featured in Invoice Magazine, displaying his surreal take on Mexican and Native American graffiti culture. His intricate usage of color, imagery, and geometric symbols creates a unity of nature and spirit through aerosol. Many other local artists displayed work and came out to support the project, including Galenism, Voxx Romana, NABRU, TheEarwig22, and many more.

All funds collected from the The Black Hat project event go towards a space where artist and supporters can call home and continue to support artistic progression in Portland. If you missed the event, you can still contribute by donating to the project’s crowdsourcing fundraising campaign.

Special thanks to Lourdes Jimenez for covering the show and contributing to this article. 

Saving Banksy Film Screening

PSAA recently co-hosted a free screening with do503 of the Saving Banksy documentary, directed by Colin M. Day (2017). do503 is an event website and app, part of an international network of sites that list and ranks daily events happening in cities. Do503 periodically hosts their own events which support local non-profits, like Portland Street Art Alliance, helping to raise money to support the causes.

At the Saving Banksy event, proceeds from a special cocktail menu and an original art raffle were donated to PSAA. We also tabled at the event, with art for sale by local street artists, informational brochures, and free stickers.

Finally, PSAA arranged for two local street artists to speak about their involvement in the documentary. Mad One, who helped distribute the film across the United States, and Jesse Hazelip who was featured in the film putting some fresh new art in the streets of California. The event was well attended, with Century Bar reaching capacity. The following is a film review, written by PSAA contributor Lourdes Jimenez (@lou_jim).

Saving Banksy follows the life of a specific piece of street art made in San Francisco by famous nom de guerre street artist, Banksy. The film focuses on the profiteering and co-option that is occurring within the street art world.

Banksy is of course famous for his elusiveness, clever stencil imagery, social commentary, cabalistic messages, and extremely site-specific work.  His fame has reached such fervor that there is now a new phrase associated with this sweeping phenomenon, “The Banksy Effect.”

The immense power of this anonymous figure has arguably created one of largest markets for contemporary art in generations. As Wooster Collective explains, “Like Andy Warhol before him, Banksy has almost single handedly redefined what art is to a lot of people who probably never felt they appreciated art before.  By being an iconoclast, and in the process becoming a mythic hero for a lot of people, Banksy has become an incredible icon in our society.” With worldwide distributions, sold-out events, and extremely high auction prices, anything that is associated with Banksy goes viral.

 Cash for your Banksy Installation in Portland, OR by Mad One.

Cash for your Banksy Installation in Portland, OR by Mad One.

Banksy’s art seems to transcend the typically argument of graffiti being “art” or “vandalism,” with admirers cutting across the spectrum of society. People who would usually classify anything done without permission as graffiti vandalism, seem to view Banksy pieces as something else, as art, with value. As legendary street artist Blek le Rat says in the film, “It’s not Art unless you can sell it for lots of money.” For these reasons Banksy’s art both paradoxically stays in the streets and is removed quickly. Many Banksy pieces are preserved behind protective glass, and cut out of walls to sell in auction houses.  

When Banky’s film, Exit Through the Gift Shop premiered in San Francisco in 2010, they skipped the interview and press events, and instead gifted the city with a handful of illegal graffiti in the Mission, Chinatown, North Beach, and South of Market. As the days went by, many of these pieces were written over and added to by others, however, at least one piece in the Haight-Ashbury District managed to remain untouched. Placed at the top corner of an old Victorian bed & breakfast, a rat styling a Che Guevara beret and clinging to a Magic marker. The mischievous rat drew a long line from one side of the building to the next, ending with text, “This Is Where I Draw the Line.”  

Brian Greif, an art collector and former general manager of KRON-TV, was able to strike a deal with the bed & breakfast owner to buy the top corner of their building’s siding and remove 10 redwood siding planks on which the rat was painted. Grief raised $10,000 to help cover some of the costs in its removal and preservation through a Kickstarter campaign. All in all, it cost Greif about $40,000 to remove the Bansky piece safety from the building and preserve it.  

Greif promised to never the sell artwork, even though other Banksy creations have sold for millions and he has been offered thousands to sell it. Unlike most art collectors and gallery salesmen, Greif’s mission with the Haight Street Rat, was to preserve the art and maintain its rightful place in the public’s eye, where it can be safely displayed for the public to view and appreciate. He wanted to donate the piece to a museum, but no museum will accept his offer due to the lack of authentication of the piece, and permission from the living artist, Banksy.

Most of the time when Banksy’s art is removed from the streets, it is sold to elite clientele. For example, Stephen Keszler a private art dealer with a gallery in South Hampton, NY, is known for removing Banksy artwork from public spaces and selling them for immense personal gain, all without the artist’s consent.

Saving Banksy raises important questions about artistic intent, the value and impact of street art, the commodification of it, and public ownership of graffiti art. Is graffiti art worth saving for future generations to learn from and enjoy? Does removing it from its original context (the street), completely diminishing its importance and changing its meaning?

Winter Light Festival 2017

As winter continues to keep the city in hibernation mode, Portland’s 2nd annual Winter Light Festival commences—presented by Portland General Electric and hosted by Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI).This public art festival provides a unique experience that lures the community from winter’s dim to an innovating aura of coming Spring. Showcasing contemporary light based art installations and performances of over 60 artists; they combine light and technology to create educational and interactive artwork.

The wet weather didn’t stop families and friends from gathering together to experience a public display of inspirational community-based projects. The purpose of this event was to bring the community “out of the dark” that comes after the holidays and create and glowing stepping stone to what is to come.

Being held a the East end of the Tilikum Bridge and along the Eastbank Espalanade, you are instantly being greeted by the PXL Matrix done by Josh Kottler on the Hampton Opera Center. It seems as if one light connects and leads you to another, taking you further down a path full of light and wonder to the Radiance Dome held at the bridge lot. This installation done by Light At Play is based on a “5 frequency geodesic dome that contains 190 illuminated panels and 120 vertex lights which together form a highly customizable, light-driven 3-D surface”. Glowing hula hop performers captivate the audience and fill the dome with radiance from the inside out.

For those that wanted to leave a mark, Graffiti Lanterns invited the audience to interact by scratching off the layered black opaque paint, exposing a hidden light source beneath. From people’s names, to designs and illustrations, these lanterns bare markings of those who have come and gone, sharing and making the experience together.

The illumination of light doesn’t only come from the installations but it is seen the faces of the people. Children look up and marvel with curiosity as they tug on their parent’s hand to look onward and move from one creation to another. The Light Chimes installation, an artistic collaboration between Andrew Haddock and design studio, Sticky CO., “reacts to movement giving off various sounds and beams of colored light, providing a melodic and visual synesthetic experience”, give each individual stepping under it a sense of self-awareness.

Moving on forward towards the Esplanade, over 50 Glow Bunnies cover the grassland—made from once piece of corrugated plastic, Olivier Bouwman uses wireless controlled LED light bulbs that are programed to shift colors and patterns all throughout the event. If we weren’t excited for the pastel season already this definitely captured everyone’s attention. Flamboyant Productions offer up space performers on stilts and curious bugs on wheels—adding more substance to the idea of innovation.

As you continue to follow the path that his been lit by the ideas of others, the installations not only encouraged interaction with the exhibit but other festival attendees. From the Pixel Throw-up, Glowing Buckets, to the Parallax, the 2017 Winter Light Festival brought some warmth to what has been a very cold season.

The community showed their support to the artists, as well as the event itself, by lighting themselves up in Christmas lights, glowing umbrellas, and creative light themed outfits that showed true Portland Spirit. The concept of this event is as innovating as the art in it—lighting the way from dark to light, cold to warm, and leaving each individual with a touch of glow they can carry back to their homes and on to the new season ahead. 

ARTICLE BY LOURDES JIMENEZ

Photos © Anton Legoo

THE HISTORY OF TAYLOR ELECTRIC

Since 2006, the remains of the Taylor Electric building have been a unique Portland landmark. A sanctuary for artists, rebels, and outcasts. Over these nine years, this burnt out industrial skeleton at SE 2nd and Clay had been continuously and illegally reinvented by the public into a gallery for urban art and exploring. Taylor Electric was full of possibilities, a homemade refuge, and a cultural space of our own making.

The aesthetics of Taylor Electric were addictive for many, not only artists and tourists, but academics, journalistsphotographers, and videographers. As geographer Bradley Garrett wrote “these spaces are appreciated for their aesthetic qualities, for their possibilities for temporarily escaping the rush of the surrounding urban environment and their ability to hint at what the future might look like, when all people have disappeared, a visceral reminder of our own mortality.”

In the months leading up to its demise, the art in Taylor Electric flourished as the fences went down and security was reduced. More so than ever people of all types, young and old, high heels and rubber boots, descended on this public place to experience an post-apocalyptic scene bursting with color.

Rumors of demolition and development plans had been circulating for years. With Portland’s economy and population is booming this change was inevitable. As power and urban space collide, developers moved their attention to this centrally located urban property. It was a profitable time to rebuild. This time instead of an electrical supply company, this site would be occupied by an office building and café. Part of the existing south-facing retaining wall of the 1936 building will be preserved and incorporated into the new structure.

In early May 2015, a large fence was erected, surrounding the entire building and closing an adjacent street. On Monday May 10th the demolition of Taylor Electric began. Spreading quickly through social media, artists shared images of the first walls to fall. Some onlookers talked with workers, gathering details of the plans. Local media outlets, like the Willamette Week covered the story, focusing on the cultural importance and impact of this space.

While a sense of loss pervaded, there was also a sense of unity and reflection that arose, as many people began to introspectively think about what was being lost, but also what had been built over the years in this space.

A local group of artists created this video:

Taylor Electric was showcase of local, regional, national and international graffiti art. When people visited Portland and wanted to see graffiti, Taylor Electric was the obvious and easiest destination.

While it has been difficult to see Portland’s only truly public and easily accessible graffiti space crumble before our eyes, graffiti is about temporarily occupying and re-imagining the spaces of the city. This spark that creates culturally rich places like Taylor Electric, lives within us. We use these urban voids as conduits and staging grounds for our creative energies. Taylor Electric was a particularly conductive environment for such electricity, but there are always new frontiers. That’s part of the beauty of graffiti; it’s always searching out the unexplored and raw. Strangely, it’s ephemeral and nomadic nature contributes to its resiliency and allure. Because it won’t be there forever.

All images © 2015 Anton Legoo

LAST DANCE WITH TAYLOR ELECTRIC

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution – Emma Goldman 1931

Last night, from a ruined crack of the urban landscape, culture erupted with fiery explosions of color, light, and movement. Crowds gathered inside and outside the space to watch this mysterious event. Playing amongst these ruins, using rubble as the raw material for innovation, the Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre Northwest’stook over Taylor Electric, using it as a stage for Ragnarok, a Norse mythological tale of destruction and rebirth. The dance performance featured artists from Portland State University, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

This event is the first and perhaps the last opportunity for the public to officially experience this space, before it is lost forever. Demolition plans have been set.

Since the ruins of Taylor Electric were left to stand outside the political economy of urban development for years, it has functioned as richly occupied public space.While it was not legally public, it also was not subjected to the exclusionary controls of commercialization that increasingly afflict our cities. Taylor Electric offered a ‘shelter from the storm’ for a diverse community of outcasts, illustrating why debates over urban economic and cultural gentrification often evolve into debates over social well-being, social order, and social justice.

Many officials and developers envision streets purged of marginalized populations, cleared of human trash. These uncomfortable reminders of decay and neglect counter a narrative of a city made safe for endless effortless consumption and full of programmed urban activities. Officials often present redevelopment as economic salvation, or as social and cultural stimulation – restoring their version of a ‘quality of life.’

However, for many people in the city, spaces like this are essential for quality of life. We choose to live in the city for the unexpected and the grit. In this way, we view the demolition of Taylor Electric as the destruction of our public and cultural sphere. In many modern sanitized cities, space for unanticipated interaction and chaotic urban pleasures are rapidly diminishing. 

Over the past few weeks, as the fences have been slowly removed, the amount and variety of urban explorers descending upon the space has dramatically increased. People of all types come to take photos, reminisce, and talk with each other about what the place is and its future. Experiencing the dance performance shed light on how easy it would have been to use a space like this for community events. Imagine if grass were planted in the factory floor, turning the space into a unique pocket park surrounded by the burnt-out skeleton walls. Live bands could play music, people could have picnics, street artists could paint murals, and mobile food carts could provide food and beverages. As many from the street art community have argued for years, if permitted, this would have provided a perfect free wall space, something the city does not have and desperately needs. Portland has a ‘zero-tolerance’ graffiti policy requiring that all un-permitted public expression be promptly removed or the property owner will be fined. Countless northwest cities (Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, San Francisco, etc.) have free walls that are open to public expression. Free walls are a community asset because they provide a designated safe place for people to practice and refine their artistic skills and a place where urban flâneurs and tourists can go to see this style of art.

Our vision of the City of Portland is a place where gutter punks, graffiti writers, and the houseless community will no longer be driven from public space. They’ll be embraced as members of the community. In such a city, residents would no longer be taught to fear marginal spaces like Taylor Electric, they would be embraced for creativity and cultural innovation, where the inherent uncertainty of the unpredictable provides raw material and conditions that incubate new ways of being and thinking. The allure of this vision is undoubtedly fleeting. We must not forget this spark lives within us, not necessarily in the spaces we create and occupy. We use these urban voids as conduits and staging grounds for creative energy. From the ruins of the past, time and time again, we rebuild.

Special thanks to Hart Noecker and Anton Legoo for contributing to this article.

Some material adapted from Jeff Ferrell’s 2001 book, “Tearing down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy” 

All images © 2014 Anton Legoo

TAYLOR ELECTRIC FREE SPACE

Seven years ago, a massive fire engulfed the wooden frame Taylor Electric Supply Warehouse on SE 2nd & Clay in the Central Eastside Industrial District of Portland. The building housed electrical equipment, flammable materials and chemicals. It was one of Portland‘s largest industrial fires ever. It burnt into the night, causing power outages and oil spills in the Willamette River. The next day, the smoldering building collapsed. All that remained was a charred skeleton and an ash-covered floor.

Today, the building‘s shell stands mostly unchanged, but with one important difference. It serves as a public art gallery, a mecca for Portland’s street art and photography community. Here, emerging and veteran artists showcase their art to the public; free, direct, and uncensored. On most days, visitors discover a range of graffiti here including, tags, stencils, installations, and huge masterpieces. As with many official and unofficial ‘free walls,’ the graffiti in Taylor Electric is generally found to be more aesthetic pleasing. The artists have time to create more detailed work.

During the day, the building comes alive in other ways. On the edge of Produce Row, a flurry of manufacturing and shipping activity surrounds it. Professional photographers, film crews, wedding parties, and urban explorers descend upon the building to photograph its walls. It is even used to market locally-made mustard.

Even though graffiti is often stereotyped negatively as promoting blight and urban decay, a thriving street art scene is also a sign of a vibrant, innovative, and creative city. Under-use and decay of built environments is not caused by the presence of graffiti; it is instead a by-product of an area that’s already in disrepair. Artists are drawn to these spaces because of their gritty aesthetics and the anonymity they provide.

Cities like Berlin, London, Melbourne, Basel, and Miami have realized that fostering creative activities in public (both planned and unplanned) can be beneficial to the city, financially and culturally. In many cities around the world, graffiti removal is mostly targeted to the central downtown core. The extent of graffiti abatement outside the city is left to individual neighborhoods to decide and manage. Some neighborhoods are mostly free of graffiti, and other areas the walls burst with color. This is not the case in the City Portland, where a blanket zero-tolerance policy covers the entire city. It is illegal to paint graffiti (or a mural) on an outside wall, even if you have permission from a property owner. If graffiti is not covered up in 10 days, property owners run the risk of being issued substantial fines from the city. Additionally, Portland does not host any official free walls, like other northwest cities, like Tacoma and Olympia do. What often results in Portland is an abundance of quick tags (which most people dislike) all over the city, instead of more elaborate pieces painted on designated walls or districts.

Portland’s zero-tolerance policy has been playing out on the walls of Taylor Electric for years now. The entire building has been ‘buffed’ (painted-out) every few months to remove the graffiti even though it was an un-salvageable building with no residential neighbors. The premise behind this continued effort was that it would “reduce social deterioration within the City and promote public safety and health.” The assumption is that consistently covered up graffiti will deter more from occurring. Research done by Portland State University graduate students in 2004 and 2012 (Gorsek & Conklin, respectively), suggests that, in fact, buffing does not to deter graffiti from reoccurring. If anything, the solid paint provides a fresh canvas to work on and incentive to get bigger and better.

The potential for re-development of the Taylor Electric site, and the surrounding area, cannot be denied. It sits just minutes from downtown Portland, offers panoramic city views of the city, and easy access to the Willamette River, East Bank Esplanade, and Hawthorne Bridge. Down the road, you find Distillery Row, the heart of Portland’s craft distilling movement, several of Portland’s famous food cart pods, the Museum of Science and Industry, and most recently, the new Eastside Streetcar line.

A different type of gentrification is occurring in the Central Eastside Industrial District (CEID). It is zoned industrial, not residential. Some of the businesses in this district have operated here for decades. There is even a non-profit, volunteerorganization, responsible for representing businesses and property owners in the Central Eastside Industrial District. This group fights to protect the rights of property owners and businesses in the district and keep CEID as an ‘industrial sanctuary,’ and major employment zone for the city.

Just recently it was announced that the Taylor Electric Building had been sold. It is now slated to be re-developed into office space. New building plans can be found here. This re-development was inevitable. Portland’s and urban growth boundary makes it a very dense city. Most vacant land in and around the urban core is developed. This land-use planning protects our cherished natural surroundings, fosters walkable, bikeable, cohesive, and vibrant neighborhoods.

However, this density also makes finding hidden under-used spaces that allow for alternative uses very hard to find. Undeveloped landscapes serve as a reminder that there is value in not having all urban space in continuous official use. These spaces in-between are voids that allow for unscripted activities. In Portland, out of under-used parking lots, culinary meeting grounds arise. In a trash covered ditch under a bridge, one of the most famous skateboarding spots in the world, Burnside Skatepark, was built by hand and without permission.

Although many people might at first think these spaces as uninviting, boring and even dangerous, other people see great potential in these derelict wastelands. These spaces offer respite from the city‘s watchful eyes. They are places in a state of uncertainty, caught between uses, and open to endless possibilities.

ALL PHOTOS © PSAA

SUNNYSIDE PIAZZA

Since 2000, neighbors of Portland’s historic Sunnyside neighborhood have come together every Spring to re-paint a huge sunflower at the intersection of SE 33rd and Yamhill, one block off Belmont. Originally, without City permission, neighborhood residents came together to claim ownership of their public space and create a vibrant community gathering place.

This was one of Portland‘s City Repair’s first projects that aimed to repair and reclaim underutilized space. City Repair facilitates artistic and ecologically-oriented placemaking through projects that honor the interconnection of human communities and the natural world. City Repair have been accomplished all around Portland, by a mostly volunteer staff and thousands of volunteer citizen activists. They provide support, resources, and opportunities to help diverse communities reclaim the culture, power, and joy that we all deserve. 

In an effort to create community-oriented spaces, local residents painted a huge orange sunflower, inspired by Fibonacci spiral geometry, in the middle of the intersection and installed multiple art pieces at each corner. Ever since then, engaged residents have turned this intersection into a space for art, expression and community building. Over 700 interviews with residents, in an academic study on the project in 2003, suggest that the community experiences more happiness, health and safety because of the repair. The Piazza has also become a a central point of the Sunnyside Neighborhood and Historic Belmont Main Street, in the heart of Southeast Portland. It has blossomed into a community cooperative movement that has cultivated social connectedness and a sense of community that gains momentum every year.

A lot of planning and effort goes into making this happen every year. Starting months before the event, organizers start planning. They canvas the neighborhood getting the required signatures for the block party permit, so they can close the intersection off to traffic and provide their community with a safe space to spend the weekend together, re-painting, talking, picnicking, and playing. They take inventory and order paint materials, repair benches, cob structures, clean-up poles, plant new flowers, coordinate a team of volunteers, and gather monetary and material donations from local businesses and the community. For the past few years, Portland Street Art Alliance has managed the project, along with fellow dedicated neighbors.

Several local businesses donate funds and supplies to help support this community event as well. Escape from New York Pizza on Belmont hosts an annual Piazza Pizza Party fundraiser in mid-May where 30% of all proceeds between 5pm-10pm go towards the project. Other local businesses, like The Sweet Hereafter and Dick's Kitchen, make significant monetary donations that help the communtiy purchase the paint and supplies needed to repaint the sunflower every year. 

What also makes Sunnyside unique is that in addition to the commissioned and organized art at the Piazza (like the painted sunflower, cob structures, mosaics, sidewalk trellises, and planter barrels), there are several un-commissioned street art interventions in the area. These unofficial pieces of art vary, but often include birdhouses, chalk boxes, metal sculptors, wooden plaques, yarn installations, and various forms of art adhered to the backs of signs and poles. Passersby tend to notice and be drawn to this community art, it is a real tourist destination. Visitors often ask questions, touch, and take pictures of these quirky interventions.

Brooklyn NY-based Portlandia star, Fred Armisen even commented on Sunnyside neighborhood’s distinct character:

At the corner of Southeast Yamhill and Southeast 33rd Avenue is the most Portland-y spot in the city. There is an artwork painted on the actual road. It’s like a sun or something. It’s too big for me to remember exactly what it is. It just looks cool and feels cool. I feel the most like I am in Portland when I stand in this spot. You’ll see what I mean. It’s residential, but there’s something about it that makes me feel very much at peace. Not like nature-guy peace. I hate that. I mean like “Hey, I am going to stand here for a few minutes and not think.” It’s quiet but you can still hear some cars go by a street over on Belmont. It feels European but still American. I stand by that description.

Along Belmont, there is a high-concentration of businesses between 33rd and 35th Avenues. Most of these mixed-use properties have high real-estate values due to their visibility and foot-traffic along this historic arterial roadway emanating from downtown. Through the 1980s and 90s, Sunnyside struggled with problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, crime, and vandalism. Younger creative were drawn into the neighborhood by its cheap rents, historic bungalows and Victorians, and its proximity to public transit. Just a few years ago in 2010, many of the businesses along Belmont were closed and boarded up. Now, all storefronts are occupied and business is booming. Sunnyside often teems with activity. On sunny days, people fill the sidewalks, eating, drinking, taking pictures, sitting on benches, and visiting local shops. When the sun sets, the night crowd descends, frequenting the bars and pool halls on the strip.

Whether it is authorized or un-authorized by the City does not seem to concern many Sunnyside residents. They see this as their community space and their responsibility to maintain. This is an active community that feels strongly about the power of community art and access to the public spaces around them.

Follow Sunnyside Piazza on Facebook and Instagram for updates! 

All Photos: © PSAA | © Anton legoo | © yaypdx 

ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK: THE HISTORY OF PIRATE TOWN

Everything is ephemeral. Sometimes it takes loosing cherished pieces of our city to realize what is important and how change is the only constant, especially in a city. As Portland’s wild-west development bonanza booms, many of us are hard at work documenting and fighting to save these important pieces of the urban landscape.

Our urban growth boundary helps preserve our hinterlands and create a dense city, but it also ensures that vacant space is temporary and abandonment is short-lived. As in other cities, Portland is growing at an unprecedented rate due to the millennial desire for a more sustainable urban life. With this influx, comes change and with this change there are important considerations and sacrifices. What impact does the loss of free, hidden, and accessible spaces have on the city and its arts culture?

Indeterminate “spaces in-between” are voids in the city, undesirable to most people and sought after by some. These abandoned, contaminated, and sometimes dangerous spaces are where DIY activities flourish. Whether it be for graffiti art, skate/BMX parks, urbex, or guerilla gardens, these “cracks” in the urban fabric provide respite from norms and regulations of modern urban space. These spaces are open to possibilities for intervention and ripe for activation; places where the seeds of innovation and authenticity can be sown.

As we contest and cope with our changing city, it is important to document and remember an important piece of Portland’s DIY and graffiti history that is quickly fading into distant memory.

It was known by many names: Popsicle Land, Creosote Factory, SuperFun Site, officially named Triangle Park, and most infamously Pirate Town. This 35-acre superfund site is situated on the Portland Harbor at the base of Waud Bluff and in the University Park area of North Portland. With an industrial history dating back to at least 1900, this site has been home to nearly 50 different industrial operations.

  Photo: Michael Endicott

Photo: Michael Endicott

  Photo: Michael Endicott

Photo: Michael Endicott

Most recently, this was the site of the former Riedel North Portland Yard, which dredged rivers, constructed boats, and cleaned-up hazardous railroad spills. Riedel closed in 1986, but the effects of its operations (and the site’s prior operations) will be present for centuries to come; as soil and groundwater tests show high levels of toxic contaminates, mainly arsenic.

This abandoned complex consisted of a dock and three cement buildings. The site provided both a canvas for the most prolific graffiti in Portland at the time and space for creation of DIY skateboarding and BMX structures. Skaters and BMX riders revamped Pirate Town, turning the spaces into parks reminiscent of the early Burnside Bridge days. For years, Pirate Town was a cherished space for all sorts of adventure; a place to end midnight bicycle rides, hold massive parties, host an epic chariot wars, army training ground, and a horror movie theater.

  Photo: The Skateboard Archives, skateandannoy.com

Photo: The Skateboard Archives, skateandannoy.com

A 2009 Portland Mercury article by Sarah Mirk documented the public sentiment when demolition plans were announced: “It’s one of those places where there’s no rules. I’m perpetually frustrated by how society stomps out the places where people can create new things,” Zander Speaks told reporters. Similarly, Zachary van Buuren said that it was “one of the few places that graffiti artists could go to do their art and it’s completely alright. It’s a giant industrial canvas, sad to see it go.” Gabe Tiller who rode around town on a coffin bike, explained that “these urban decay areas are gorgeous and every city needs them, it was inevitable I guess. Fun while it lasted, and there are other great spots out there waiting to be found!”

  Photo:   Jeremy Running

American Institute of Architects even hosting a photography show displaying the work of Bruce Forster, commemorating the graffiti that covered almost every inch of the structure.

  Photo: Chris Nukala, theskateboardarchives.com

Photo: Chris Nukala, theskateboardarchives.com

Reminiscing about the Pirate Town 10 years later, native Portlander and professional BMX rider Caleb Ruecker explained to PSAA that for many years it was a favorite spot for him and his friends, for not only biking but fishing off the decaying old docks. For a long time it was a chill spot, mainly just used by the bikers, skaters, and graffiti artists, and sometimes visited by photographers and explorers. Then around 2003 nearby University of Portland students started going down there more, even driving their cars down the access road (unlike most who took the back way in along the tracks). This brought a lot of attention to the site and then there were fences and guards.

Photo: Sam Policar

  Photo: Bruce Foster

Photo: Bruce Foster

In December of 2008, the University bought the site for $6 million and swiftly demolished it; releasing a statement saying that it was a liability. Back then, UofP representatives explained that the site would allow them to “expand without going into the neighborhood.” They saw this as an “opportunity to take blighted and contaminated industrial land and restore it under the stewardship of the University of Portland as a public asset.” Rumors circulated that it was going to be developed it into a baseball, sports field, or storage area. Today, over 7 years after its demolition, some environmental restoration has happened, but the site still sits completely vacant, being almost completely reclaimed by nature.

Interestingly, the University’s comment about how they intended to restore the site into a “public asset” raises the question about who this development is for, and how the divergent values placed on spaces. These abandoned spaces are actually often being well-used, just not in traditional, scripted, or city-sanctioned ways. While technically being private property, many times these types of sites are left to rot, especially turning into semi-public spaces.

  Photo: Chris Nukala, theskateboardarchives.com

Photo: Chris Nukala, theskateboardarchives.com

These spaces are then reclaimed by certain subcultures and turned into unique “community asset.” However, the general ethos does recognize the value in these unique DIY spaces in cities, they just assume that they are blighted, debauchery-ridden cesspools that need to be removed. True in some cases yes, but in others they are just removed for the sake of removing them, paved or grassed over, or left to sit for another few decades until market demand rises to the point of profit.

  Photo:   Brandon Seifert
  Photo:   Aaron Rabideau

As urban planners strive to design authenticity in our cities with placemaking and tactical urbanism-inspired plans, we ignore and disregard the fact that original and authentic place-making is done by the communities like these, in places like Pirate Town and more recently in Taylor Electric. Toxic wastelands flourish into meccas for activity, adventure, and raw beauty. Enter at your own risk.

Special thanks for Caleb Ruecker for providing invaluable insights and inspiration for finally writing this article. Be sure to follow his demolition and abandoned documentation adventures @calebrueckersphotos.
  Photo:   Aaron Rabideau
 Photo: Bruce Foster

Photo: Bruce Foster

  Photo: Michael Endicott

Photo: Michael Endicott

  Photo: Michael Endicott

Photo: Michael Endicott

  Photo: Michael Endicott

Photo: Michael Endicott

  Photo: Michael Endicott

Photo: Michael Endicott

  Photo: Michael Endicott

Photo: Michael Endicott

  Photo: Michael Endicott

Photo: Michael Endicott

  Photo: Michael Endicott

Photo: Michael Endicott

  Photo:   Brandon Seifert

FOREST FOR THE TREES

Forest for the Trees (FFTT) is a non-profit public mural project that promotes public visual expression; collaboration; and community engagement with contemporary art and the creative process. For a few weeks in late August, the streets of Portland and its communities, were activated by a surge of art. FFTT is organized by artist Gage Hamilton, curator Matt Wagner of Hellion Gallery, and event producer Tia Vanich. It is also made possible by community volunteers who help with various project logistics, like transportation. In 2015, this team organized an impressive group of 30 artists from all around the world to paint 20 murals in the City of Portland. Participating FFTT artists donate their time, and in return FFTT secures the walls, all required city permits, and pays for all the materials, equipment, travel costs, and logging the artists may need during the project. Funding for the project comes mostly from public crowd-sourcing campaigns & Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) grants, along with discounts and donations from local businesses. 

The 2015 3rd annual FFTT once again propelled Portland’s creative energies forward, bringing together local and visiting artists from around the world to transform walls with their unique visions and diverse talents. Portland Street Art Alliance (PSAA) partnered with the FFTT team again and hosted a free public bicycle tour, visiting in-progress murals located in SE Portland.  This 3-hour tour was lead by PSAA and FFTT directors, along with a team of volunteer route experts, intersection corkers, and documenters. It was great to see such a wonderful turn out, even on a blustery morning, with about 40 people showing up for the ride. Traveling refreshments were generously provided by Guayaki Yerba Mate’s bike cart.

At each stop, tour guides provided commentary on each mural and the artists behind the work. Also discussed were topics like: the two processes for creating murals in Portland (via city permit or RACC), artistic copyright law (VARA rights), the global street art scene, and rise of street art festivals, and the constant battles over the use and control of urban public spaces.

The tour began at Pod 28 (the food carts at Ankeny & 28th) where Minneapolis-based artist Alex Petersen spoke to attendees. Alex described his piece, an x-ray shadow of a creature, as being symbolic of the primal connections among all life on Earth.

Riding down the Ankeny Bike Boulevard, the next tour stop was Josh Keyes’ mural, on the side of There Be Monsters. An well-known local gallery artist, Josh was trained as a fine artist at Yale University of Art and his subject matter often depicts wild animals set in post-apocalyptic urban landscapes – commentary on humanity’s impact on the natural world and nature’s resilience. In this mural, a rhino has literally broken through the wall, in trompe l’oeil style, stampeding down street signs in its path.

Josh explained to the crowd that this was his first mural and his largest painting to-date. He employed an old sign painter technique – using perforated tissue paper and a bag of loose chalk to outline his piece before painting.

Just down the street, the next tour stop was at ADX, where local artists-designers Blaine Fontana and David Rice were at their wall along the back of the warehouse. ADX, a creative workshop, is now a true hub for street art in Portland, being almost completely covered in murals from the past 3 years of FFTT. Their piece included several anthropomorphic beings and a cherished local icon – a totem of Belmont Goats. For years, the Belmont Goat herd grazed in a nearby field before new development pushed them out to the Lents neighborhood earlier this year.

Heading to inner industrial SE, the tour’s next stop was at Peruvian artist Jade Rivera’s massive mural at Union/Pine – a depiction of his wife, laying down with a small bird and skull. This striking piece has a translucent glowing quality. Surprisingly, it only took Jade only a few days to complete.

Just above Jade’s mural, Kazakhstani illustrator Ola Volo and local designer Zach Yarrington collaborated on their Nothing Good Comes Easy mural that involved bold typography and folk-inspired wolves, tangled up in a relationship.

Next up was Dutch painter Joram Roukes’ mural, a distorted double-exposed patchwork of images that included a man with the word “broken” on his sleeve. Masterfully stitched together and executed, this mural was among some of the favorites from this year.

Next the tour quickly swung by NoseGo and Yakima Fields’ 2014 FFTT murals on City Liquidators.

The bicycle group’s next stop was at River City Bicycles to visit Aaron Glasson(New Zealand) and Celeste Byers (San Diego, CA).

This duo travels the world together, often working on ocean activism projects, like Sea Walls Murals for Oceans and PangeaSeed. Together they create bright whimsical images, often of lively aquatic and psychedelic scenes.

For this mural, Aaron and Celeste decided to paint a family floating down a Pacific Northwest river, something they later found out was a favorite local pastime, tubing down our many waterways. The mural also had a personal connection to Celeste, who modeled the figures in the likeness of her great-great aunt and new baby nephew. This mural was a surprise birthday present for her great-great aunt, who was visiting Portland to celebrate her 95th birthday.

Finally, they wanted to represent some of their new friends they had made while painting the mural in Portland, and incorporated their tattoos into the mural’s imagery.

After quick cruise by DALeast’s “Persistent Parabola” wave mural from 2014, the group rolled out to the final mural stop – the BMD World Naked Bike Ride mural.

Painted a few months before the start of FFTT 2015, this huge mural (nearby the new Tilikum Crossing bridgehead) depicts adventure-loving animals in quirky flare participating in Portland’s famous and well-attended annual naked bike ride.

The bicycle tour finished off the afternoon enjoying cold brews and good conversation at the Apex Beer Garden on 12th and Division, just across the street from the recently revitalized “Art Fills the Void!” mural, painted originally by Gorilla Wallflare in 1984 and thus is Portland’s oldest surviving guerrilla graffiti.

PSAA was honored to be a part of the FFTT project again this year; it is a great opportunity for the community to connect, make, interact, and celebrate beautiful urban art. It is also a wonderfully democratic project because it turns the entire city into a public art gallery, accessible and free to everyone. Finally, place-based community events like these encourage people to not just passively observe, but to also engage with and become active participants in the creation of energized, distinct, and personalized public spaces.

More 2015 Tour Photos

2015 SE Portland Bike Route Map

Full List of 2015 FFTT Mural Wall Locations

All Photos © Anton Legoo

2014 Forest for the Trees Mural Project & PSAA Bicycle Tour

Portland Street Art Alliance was honored to be invited to host a guided bicycle tour of the Forest for the Trees murals painted during the 2nd annual project in 2014.

The tour began at the now iconic Rone mural and the new Faith47 masterpiece in downtown Portland. The group of 30 or so bicyclists rode through downtown and the southeast to visit 11 of the 18 new FFTT murals, ending in a classic Portland-style celebration on the patio of Gigantic Brewery. We hope the tour helped the community experience firsthand the magic of public mural making. It was a great opportunity to see the creative process unfold and to hear directly from the artists and festival directors about their vision.

We can’t thank the Portland art and cycling community more for their support in organizing this community event. It was a great success and PSAA is already working on plans to host more street art tours in the city. If you didn’t make it to the tour, and want to see all the new 2014 FFTT murals, check out this awesome bicycle route map we made (with the help of some friends).

Stop 1. 1114 SW Washington | Faith47 (CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA)

Stop 2. 720 NW Davis | Gage Hamilton, Director of Forest for the Trees (PDX)

Stop 3. 1301 SE Grand | J.Shea (PDX)

Stop 4. 2121 SE 6th | Zach Yarrington (PDX)

Stop 5. 840 SE 3rd | NoseGo (PHILADELPHIA)

Stop 6. 425 SE 11th | Spencer Keeton Cunningham (SAN FRANCISCO)

Stop 7. 2306 SE Morrison | Paige Wright (PDX) & Blakely Dadson (PDX)

Stop 8. 916 SE 34th | The Lost Cause (PDX)

Stop 9. 5224 SE 26th | Ogi (TOKYO) & Nosego (PHILADELPHIA)

Post-Tour Celebration with the Forest for the Trees & PSAA crews at Gigantic Brewing!

More photos from the 2014 Forest for the Trees Mural Project...

All photos © Anton Legoo

UGLY SWEATER PDX

PSAA interviewed Claudia Martinez, one of the yarn bombers behind the uglysweaterPDX project. In its second year, uglysweaterPDX yarn bombs Pioneer Square’s bronze art statues with festive ugly sweaters for the holidays.

How did the Ugly Sweater PDX project start? What were the project’s goals?

Our team of knitters this year included Jessica DeVries, Jenny Mosher, Amanda Miller, and myself (Claudia Martinez). Our friend Kyle Stuart, who works for a local branding company called North, wanted to propose a yarn bombing project to Travel Portland. He wanted it to be something that locals and visitors to Portland could enjoy during the holiday season. Problem was, he only knew one crocheter. Luckily, he reached out to his friend Jessica DeVires, who then approached Jenny and me with the idea. I was already familiar with the practice of yarn bombing, so I immediately wanted to join the team. It was an opportunity to what I could normally be doing any Sunday Crafternoon anyways, but on a much grander scale, and more importantly it would be something for the city.

  Jessica and Jenny dress up downtown’s deer. [Photo by: Travel Portland]

Jessica and Jenny dress up downtown’s deer. [Photo by: Travel Portland]

Did your team face any challenges when trying to make this happen?

I was a little skeptical about the idea of getting paid, and also worried about the longevity of the sweaters. I’ve made art installations before and know that people often remove or take them (just for fun, to keep, or maybe they think they’re trash). The temptation of decorative sweaters would be no exception. As sad as it is to have the sweaters disappear, I’ve come to peace with the idea that if it’s taken, it was such a good piece that people wanted it, or perhaps they actually needed it to stay warm. I knew that if we did this project, we had to be ready for criticisms the possibility of vandalism, but those are things that come with any form of installation art.

Under different (or normal) circumstances something like this could technically be fined as littering, or even theoretically criminal mischief (i.e. interference with private property). Any thoughts on that? What do you think about unauthorized yarn bombing?

I’m a bit biased on this question due to my long-standing affection towards street art. Sometimes you just need to break up the monotony of everyday. The advantage to yarn bombing is that it can be removed with little or no damage to those directly affected by the art. It is the same with wheatpasted art. Any artist will tell you that even their best pieces have at least one villainous critic, so someone’s litter is another’s needed splash of color.

  UglySweaterPDX 2014 [Photo by: Gina Murrell]

UglySweaterPDX 2014 [Photo by: Gina Murrell]

What were people’s reactions to you putting up these yarn installations? Any memorable interactions?

I was surprised by the amount of positive feedback we received from passersby, both young and old. The older crowds were inspecting the types of knots or stitches used, while the younger people made comments about the time it must have taken to create the pieces. In fact, when one of our first pieces was stolen, some unknown strangers put scarves and gloves on them, as replacement pieces. It was nice to know that our work had touched people so deeply that they made and installed replacement yarn pieces, all just to keep the sentiment alive.

  Claudia knits on some leg cozies [Photo by: Jaime Valdez]

Claudia knits on some leg cozies [Photo by: Jaime Valdez]

It would be great to see publicly-funded yarn art for causes that are for the greater good like this because I really do feel that it reflects well on the city. I was also part of the team that did Bridge for Blankets this past year, a temporary installation on the Broadway Bridge to celebrate its centennial birthday. After, all the blankets were donated to the local homeless shelters and hospitals. Projects like these show that the city wants to support the non-traditional, and it stands behind all sorts of creatives, from traditional painters and muralists, to the lesser-known fabric, yarn, and fiber artists.

Watch a short UglySweaterPDX promo video.

For more photos of this years and last years installations, search #uglysweaterpdx on Instagram and Twitter.

HANKSY’S PORTLAND SURPLUS CANDY

Check out Hanksy’s new episode of Surplus Candy, featuring PSAA and other members of Portland’s street art community. Filmed in the Spring 2014, the 4th episode of this mini-series highlights the unique and determined artists that call Portland home.

NYC-based artist Hanksy has teamed up with The Hundreds to showcase what American streets have to offer, visiting off-the-beaten path cities like Montreal, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Austin to explore their unique street art and graffiti scenes. The episodes air every other Wednesday on The Hundreds‘ website.

The Hundreds is pleased to bring you Hanksy’s “Surplus Candy” episode 4 – Portland. Hanksy’s six-part street art odyssey, with the help of Squarespace, has brought him to the streets of Portland to find an art scene that is supposed to be absent. After a scuffle between an ad agency and the city of Portland, a zero tolerance policy for graffiti and murals was put into effect. Though Hanksy soon learns that when art is blocked it just changes courses and flows into a different direction. Portland is a place where street artists have been forced to channel their creativity around the strict laws, ironically pushing street art back to its purest form – underground and out of sight. So much for a city with a non-existent street art scene. (Review from The Hundreds)

A HUGE shout out to all the local artists involved in this project, and everyone that makes up and supports Portland’s street art and graffiti scenes. Portland’s street art and graffiti scenes are alive and well, if you take time to stop and look. 

Read more about Hanksy’s work and his unique spin on the world of street art here.

JR’s Inside Out Project PDX

Portland has been turned inside out! Alongside the train tracks of inner SE, a group of community members transformed the wall of K+F Coffee Roasters into a people’s public art gallery. One Grand, an art and design gallery in Portland, organized the city’s first JR Inside Out Project. The theme, “Keep Portland Weird.”

Inside Out is a global art project transforming messages of personal identity into works of art. The Steps: Organize a group, choose a theme, apply for the grant, and if accepted, take photos of people who live in the city based on the theme, send them to JR, who prints them out and sends them back. The project culminated with the community coming together to wheatpaste these portraits in public spaces around the city. These massive collages literally put a “human face” on the urban built environment. Projects like this get people to participate in public space in ways they may, or may not, have before.

It was great to see people wheatpasting for the first time, and really enjoying the process of being a part of this community action to alter the aesthesis of the city. One of those people was Anton Legoo, a local interaction designer. Anton spoke about the project’s effect saying, “it helped me to remember that we are all the same person wearing different disguises; hats, glasses, hair styles, facial expressions, social projections, genders, daily routines, hometowns, loves, and life experiences.”

Project organizer, Kali Huebner of the One Grand Gallery, explained that they wanted to bring JR’s Inside Out here to “to celebrate our landscape, our culture, and the individuals and ideas that make and shape this city. The goal was “to honor our appreciation for local business and craft, while bringing the community together to challenge our art scene and continue the discussion of street art and vandalism.”

The installation is on a factory building on SE 14th & Taggart. Located between the railroad tracks, a dead-end road, and the nearby former Brooklyn Skate Spot. This building has been a favorite for local graffiti artists for many years. This is a hidden space “in-between.” It’s a tucked away spot, slightly out of sight from the flow of traffic, a space creative and unmediated creative exchanges between people and their environment can more easily happen without fear of harassment or arrest.

It will be interesting to see how the City reacts to this project and how it evolves over time. Will the building still be a graffiti spot? Is this the start of a wheatpaste wall like Seattle’s Post Alley? Will Portland’s graffiti abatement issue a citation? The Brooklyn neighborhoodis rapidly changing with the new light rail construction surrounding it, so whatever happens, it will only be brief. When the development is complete, graffiti abatement will surely increase and all of this will most likely be wiped ‘clean’ like many other parts of this quickly gentrifying city.

The politics of the space extend past the official legalities, to the unofficial laws of the street. Some in the street and graffiti art community see this project as a mass replication that limits their access to few spaces where it is still somewhat possible to paint without extreme risk of being arrested. Wheatepaste is sometimes looked down upon by graffiti and other street artists because, in some cases, they see it as being less creative (it is not necessarily ‘made by hand’) and daring. Modern printing and copying technology, and the popularity of the OBEY campaign, has popularized this medium over the past few decades. Wheatepaste is also thought to be problematic from a graffiti writer’s perspective because it interferes with the quality of their work. Spray paint will quick wash away if it’s applied over wheatpaste and the texture is difficult to work around. An aerosol piece can paint on over and over again, but once a wheatepaste is applied to a wall, it makes that canvas less desirable for paint interventions and more desirable for more wheatepaste interventions.

To us, all of these forms have equal merit; both have examples that display unquestionable artistic skill and/or social commentary. Take for instance N.O. Bonzo, a local street artist who spends month’s intricately painting home-made paper with home-made ink, creating truly epic wheatpastes. Or, on the other hand, a graffiti writer who refines and plays with their hand-style over decades, constantly is remixing its elements.

We believe that street art, in all its forms, is the defining modern aesthetic of our time and a powerful community organizing tool. In the end, we hope this project makes us question: what does it mean to have an active role in our environments and communities? This project helps show the City of Portland that there are many benefits to allowing more street art and letting people directly participate in their city space. One of the most powerful aspects of Inside Out is that everyone can participate; it is truly the “people’s” art project.

THE LOVEJOY COLUMNS

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.

SOW GOOD SEEDS

Burnside Arts Trust partnered with Portland’s Urban Farm Collective to sow good seeds in the Grand Dekum Garden. Local Portland artists Circleface, N.O. Bonzo, and Dhestoe painted the garden’s garage to celebrate the joyous growth of this garden and infuse the space with lovely art and excitement. These artists dedicated their time to this project because they want to actively promote shared green spaces within our city. “We believe in the power of community gardens to build relationships, beautify urban spaces, and promote positive interactions with nature inside the city,” said a Burnside Arts Trust representative.

The Urban Farm Collective (UFC) maintains 17 community gardens in Portland. UFC is made up of a progressive group of volunteers who use vacant urban land to enrich and support communities, helping people re-imagine the possibilities of these spaces. They aim to educate, build communities, and improve food security. Their gardens are fully supported by local volunteers who care for and maintain them throughout the year. The collective hosts a non-monetized market that trades volunteer hours for garden produce. Surplus crops are donated to the St. Andrews Church food bank.

Please visit the UFC’s website at urbanfarmcollective.com to see the amazing work they do and to get involved with one of their gardens. For more information on the benefits of urban community farming visit communitygarden.org.

Urban residents around the world are reclaiming vacant land; transforming void spaces into fertile places to grow food, relationships, and community. Community gardens re-introduce nature into the city, helping to cultivate a re-enchantment with the natural world and support the psychological well-being of residents. Gardens also promote more sustainable urban development, community resilience and networking, organic food production, environmental protection and awareness. It is not just the physical creation of gardens that is transformative; they also spur new ways of thinking about cities and our right to directly create places around us that nourish our basic human needs – to grow, love, play, sense, connect, and live.

ALL PHOTOS © PSAA

MURALS & THE PORTLAND CITY SIGN CODE

At one time, artists could paint outdoor murals in Portland with a simple agreement between themselves and the building owner, as is the case in manyother cities in the United States.

In 1998, the City of Portland was thrust into a lengthy and complicated legal battle with AK Media (a company that was later absorbed by Clear Channel).

Thanks to the dedicated efforts of a handful of art advocates who pushed for the art of mural-making to be recognized, in 2005, the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) began its Public Art Mural Program. In 2009, following the closing of the Clear Channel trial, and the judge’s decision (in 2007), the City of Portland’s new mural program was created.

Until those two pathways were forged, community murals were either not painted, or were done without City permission, thereby risking citations and fines for building owners being out of compliance with the City’s sign code.

Both the existing mural programs have certain requirements. The City of Portland’s mural permitting process requires a fee and a neighborhood meeting. RACC is a more comprehensive mural proposal submission and funding opportunity that, if approved, the mural is added to the City’s public art collection, ensuring that the artwork is exempt from the City’s sign code and will be enjoyed by future generations to come.

The existing systems work, and many murals have been painted since the drought of mural art in the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, there are many ways that certain types of artistic expression are still burdened.

It is time that the City of Portland re-evaluates its Original Art Mural Permit process to ensure that it is still effective and could not be further improved.

 Buckman Community Mural by Joe Cotter

Buckman Community Mural by Joe Cotter

Contributors: Joanne Oleksiak, Robin Dunitz & Mark Meltzer

MUSIC MILLENNIUM MURAL

In the spring of 2013, Portland Street Art Alliance and two local artists, The Lost Cause (TLC) and Jon Stommel of Rather Severe, successfully completed a community-funded mural on the backside of Music Millennium (3158 E Burnside). This was PSAA's first project, bringing together the founding team to engage with the community and facilitating art in the streets. 

PSAA and this project started in an unlikely way. The prior winter (2012) TLC and local art shop, Home:bass, launched a very successful fundraising campaign, raising almost 3 times more than what they asked for. Everything was going smoothly until TLC was painting the mural and was approached by Portland Police. The officers interrogated him, asking what he was doing, and if he had a permit. No one knew that in addition to owner-permission, you also need a City of Portland mural permit to legally paint an art mural. The Home:bass shop was no stranger to Portland police, being the frequent target of surveillance, especially during their street art show openings. Due to these complications, the Home:bass mural project fell through when Home:bass's lease was not renewed by the property owner. 

That is when the founding members of PSAA stepped in, Tiffany and Tomas. After a few brainstorming sessions, the team hit the streets canvasing local business to find a new mural space for this project. After approaching about 20 business on Burnside, Stark and Hawthorne, we walked into Music Millennium, the oldest record store in the Pacific Northwest. We were imminently directed to speak to Terry Currier the owner. Terry was very open-minded and excited at the prospect of bringing some color and energy to his blank white wall. Even better, the artists were willing to do this project at no cost Music Millennium, as the crowd-source funding covered most of the costs associated with paint and labor. 

The artist team worked with Terry Currier, the owner of Music Millennium, to create a design that would be reminiscent of the record store’s psychedelic roots. They decided on a colorful Beatles-inspired array of happy characters and swirling patterns. PSAA secured the City of Portland mural permit.

Speaking about his art and the new mural, the The Lost Cause said, “We just want to make people smile and laugh. It was a great experience to paint this mural and get to talk with people of all ages, some neighbors and others coming to the record shop. They liked the characters and bright colors.”

Check out PSAA's video documenting some of the creative process!

ALL PHOTOS © PSAA

DECAPITALIZING PUBLIC SPACE

 Originally published by  Partizaning , a participatory urban re-planning and activist organization based in Russia that promotes the idea of art-based DIY activism aimed at rethinking, restructuring and improving urban environments and communities.

Originally published by Partizaning, a participatory urban re-planning and activist organization based in Russia that promotes the idea of art-based DIY activism aimed at rethinking, restructuring and improving urban environments and communities.

An article written by local artist Nina Montenegro and PSAA’s Tiffany Conklin, about the Free the Billboards project that took place in Portland during the summer 2012 and why it’s important to re-claim and re-imagine Portland’s public spaces.


Street art is as transient as life itself; it often disappears as quickly as it appears. This ephemeral nature gives the work a freedom, spontaneity, and playfulness seldom reached in other, more lasting forms of art.

With street art, a different kind of reality is offered, one in which our physical urban surroundings are not static, but are mold-able by each of us. It encourages dialogue within society about cultural values and norms. It produces shared narratives between people, ideas, and the built environment.

Artists who place their work in the streets engage in a form of grassroots place-making—they construct and invent new types of spaces and social relations, showing that the value spaces have (or don’t have) and the meanings we attached to spaces, are constantly changing—in an endless cycle of creation and destruction.

(Re)Claiming Public Space

We’re often pushed towards a ‘containerist view’ of public spaces, seeing them as inert vessels which we have little influence or control over. Many of our shared spaces are actually ‘pseudo-public spaces’ that are specifically designed to restrict the possibilities of appropriating them to fulfill our needs. They are heavy monitored spaces; CCTV surveillance, motion, and vibration sensors track many activities. In this system, property rights often trump human rights.

The nature of public spaces in modern cities corresponds to an economic mode of life that we’ve embraced—one of reproducibility and repetition—that consistently reproduces and reinforces hierarchical relationships (Lefebvre & Goonewardena 2008). Since many of the values we hold are mediated through the desire to accumulate capital, the spaces we produce often reflect this preoccupation.

These spaces are not really meant to be used by the public. Homeless people are now basically banned from existing in many US cities. Public spaces are designed to control behaviors, protect investments, and ensure smooth circulation through the mechanics of the city.

Unique places are increasingly smoothed over. Every place begins to look like the next. Through the process of re-ification, an imaginary ‘ideal’ of what cities should be is produced by those in power, regurgitated and presented to the public as real. Take for instance the dramatic transformation of the once gritty New York City Times Square into a Disney-fied Main Street USA. These distorted urban mirages are hollow shells of what cities really are: diverse, dirty, melting pots of people and ideas.

The sense of ‘place-lessness’ often felt in these pseudo-public spaces is a result of them not being grounded or connected to the people who occupy them (Massey 2005). Feelings of alienation and disconnectedness are spurred from our disengagement from public spaces.

Additionally, public spaces have not historically been a guaranteed public right—they have been made public because people take the space, making it public (Cresswell 1996). Public space only remains open if citizens ensure its continued access by occupying it and consistently pushing its boundaries. Having access to public space is vital to a healthy democracy because of the functional necessity of having a physical arena to communicate with others and voice dissent.

One way to counter-act this spectacle is through tactical urban interventions. Artists are re-embracing the revolutionary ideas of the Situationists of the 1950s by creating ‘situations’ that take pedestrians off their predictable paths, outside their habits, and jolt them into a new imaginative awareness of the city where space is in a constant state of becoming.

Free the Billboards

Street artists produce artifacts that sit in direct competition with sanctioned public art and commercial advertisements. On average, we’re exposed to 3,000 to 5,000 ads per day. Being constantly confronted by this onslaught of ads pushes us to be passive consumers rather than contributing citizens.

Advertisements are considered normal and acceptable uses of public space because capital interests regulate them. Visual communication amongst community members (i.e., street art, murals, etc.) is illegal unless permitted and paid for. Advertising conglomerates can easily pay to display marketing in our public space. On the other hand, individual citizens are up against complicated bureaucracies, curators, and fees. Therefore, many artists choose to ‘go rogue’ and express themselves in the streets without permission. A number of cities and states are pushing back. Sao Paulo Brazil, Houston Texas, Maine, Vermont, Alaska, and Hawaii have all banned billboards from their public spaces.

Street art stands separate (for the most part) from the commercial sphere. If done without permission, by its very nature, street art confronts mainstream ideas of a well-organized and regulated public sphere. Even if street artists don’t intentionally protest against this system, their public work does spark a new type of awareness in the minds of passersby. The possibilities of the space have been opened up, even if slightly.

In the summer of 2012, Nina Montenegro began Free the Billboards, a project to revive community interaction at the street level in Portland, Oregon USA by facilitating a (re)imagination of public visual space. Imagery and ideas were collected from community members via an online public forum. The public submitted pictures of what they would rather see displayed on their neighborhoods billboards, other than advertisements—artwork they loved, poetry, anything they felt strongly about. The community-contributed images were placed into vintage Portland-made View-Masters, which were then put into hand-crafted recycled brass and steel pedestal stations that were strategically positioned in front of billboards around the city.

The collected images were superimposed over the ads. Pedestrians could peer into the View-Master to see the wall before them with art, gardens, or poetry on it instead of an ad.  The powerful visioning tools acted as a gateway into an augmented reality.

Playing with the Streets

The use of View-Masters also invokes a playful nostalgia, as many of us may remember playing with these toys as children. Play is an important but largely neglected aspect of human experience in the city.

As children, we all explore, touch, and manipulate things. This is how we learn about the reality of objects and the structuring of space (Tuan 1974). When adults play in the city, it is often seen as a controversial waste of time and energy (Stevens 2007). Cities are planned to optimize work and other rational objectives, with leisure space serving well-defined functions. Therefore, spontaneous actions like this challenge the rigorous timetable of bureaucratic and capitalist production (Bonnett 1992).

Playing in public spaces, especially those not designed for it, reveals new realms of possibilities and embraces the space’s embedded use-value. This tactical blending of art, play, and life is a lived critique of rational action, because it discovers new needs and develops new forms of social life illustrating the capacities for social action and expression that the urbanization of society has made possible.

Free the Billboards aims to produce counter-spectacles that interrupt everyday experiences and provoke a reorientation—a temporary liberation from established order. The installations produce an imaginative and autonomous world; one that helps people (re)imagine the urban spaces around them.

The project intends to crack open the status quo, to challenge people to think beyond the current reality and imagine a new one, one of their own making. Instead of our public places being produced for us and controlled by distant bodies for profit, citizens must demand the right to the oeuvre, the right to participate in the creation of their own realities.

ALL PHOTOS © ALEX MILAN TRACY

ART BASE COMMUNITY MURAL PROJECT FACES FORCED REMOVAL BY THE CITY

Portland is a city that by all appearances is constantly in flux. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in North Portland, where the Alberta Arts District draws thousands of people each month to its Last Thursday, where collectively-inspired permaculture gardens explode into vibrant natural canvases in lots that dandelion weeds and thistle once overwhelmed, where old bike parts and other rusty recycled metals decorate gates and archways, and where purposeful paint sprawls across intersections, bike lanes, and otherwise crushingly quotidian surfaces.

While Alberta Street has drawn ample attention as being a revitalized center for art, commerce, cuisine and cooperatives, commuters and bikers along N Williams Avenue have noticed a steady increase in the level of commitment from the neighborhood and local artists to create a more community-oriented and visually appealing thoroughfare.

Formerly dotted with forbidding, unused lots, strewn with the obligatory broken glass, and tagged with a heavy saturation of graffiti, the stretch now boasts several community gardens, Village Building Convergence’s Boise Eliot public market, and several community mural projects that cover small plywood frames or entire two-story building facades.

One such mural lies at the intersection of Williams and NE Wygant. Formerly the site of an upholstery store, and attached to a residential unit, the building was frequently the target of graffiti artists and the city seemed to neither have the willpower or resources to address the situation. Now a colorful panoply of murals on three sides, the city has stepped in to serve a notice that the murals must be effaced.

Flash back to several months ago, when residents of the house began to dialogue with the graffiti artists by creating their own visual expressions on the building. A local painter/muralist noticed the building and approached the residents about opening up the space for a mural project.

The residents pooled their resources together to rent the empty space – which they likened to an “empty, cold, concrete cave” – and turn the exterior into a display of art, with an interior that would be a “warm, inspiring den of community-building and artistic creation.” A sign was raised on the roof that heralded Portland’s new “Arts Base.”

The property owners gave permission to paint over the drab and defaced walls, and the idea was generated that murals would be painted to feature a “rotating showcase of local talent,” according to outreach communications from the project organizers.

People in the surrounding Humboldt neighborhood were contacted and invited to give their feedback and express any concerns about the project. As the tagging began to subside, all that seemed missing was an interest from the City in funding this graffiti abatement project.

The project continued informally, and several months later, people began to take notice. One resident recalls people constantly coming by to photograph the murals and commenting on how beautiful they looked.

A nearby neighbor came to paint her own mural on the walls. A local group with the moniker “Bike Temple” approached the organizers to rent space in the building. Other individuals seeking studio space for larger projects started to take an interest in the space.

Organizers raised money as they could and supplemented the rest with meager teachers’ pay, with the intention that it could some day be a self-sustaining space. “We’re trying to do something that’s benefiting the community,” says one organizer.

Enter the Portland Police Department’s Graffiti Abatement Office. In a public communication prepared by Program Coordinator Marcia Dennis entitled “How to Read Graffiti and What to Do,” she writes, “Graffiti, by legal definition, is vandalism. (See ORS 164.383 or Portland City Code 14B.80) It is the unauthorized application of markings on someone else’s property, i.e.,WITHOUT PERMISSION.”

The same coordinator has determined that the murals at Williams and Wygant have indeed met the definition of vandalism. A notice was served to the landlords to paint over the murals within ten days.

Property owners who had unquestionably given permission for the murals filed an appeal with the city to delay the repainting, but ended up withdrawing their appeal after poring over restrictive city codes. Many neighbors were surprised, confused, or angry that the residents were now being required to paint over the murals.

An organizer of Arts Base expressed their frustration, “It’s too much for them, too colorful, too loud . . . as long as we can keep it inside it would be great, but it’s hard to do a community art space when you have to keep it inside, when you can’t be loud, can’t amplify music, can’t have murals, can’t have a sign.”

Residents now have two weeks to paint over the murals, and the Graffiti Abatement Office Coordinator is rejecting further appeals, claiming that it is no longer in her “jurisdiction.” Organizers hold out hope that a sympathetic coordinator or specialist in whatever other jurisdiction the case is now in will authorize the mural project, or calls to the City Commissioner from community members might stay the date of execution for the artwork.

UPDATE: (Aug 8th, 2011) The City of Portland has allowed the murals to stay, and plans for new murals are underway. However, the City has found Arts Base to be in violation of city zoning statutes, alleging that the residential space is being used for commercial activities. While the organizers of Arts Base have gone in the red on their venture, they plan on complying with their property managers’ demands that they cease community art activities in the space in order to pass the City’s upcoming inspection.

THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN WATCHDOG INTERNATIONAL POSTED ON JULY 18, 2011 AND ENTITLED: COMMUNITY MURAL PROJECT FACES EFFACEMENT