Legal Wall Research Project

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In 2012, PSAA was founded as an advocacy group. Our friends were being pressured and harassed by the police for making art in the street, even when they had permission from owners. Art shows and galleries that supported street and graffiti art were being shut down. Since then, PSAA has been working behind-the-scenes to help advocate for this form of art and shape the future of street and graffiti art in Portland by advocating for new City policies.

PSAA is working in a collaboration with Portland State University’s Urban Planning Department to develop a Legal Walls proposal to go before the Portland Council for city-wide approval in the Summer of 2019. PSAA was one of a few organizations selected (including the Portland Bureau of Transportation, the City of Vancouver, the City of Monroe, and the Cathedral Park Neighborhood Association) by the department’s Master’s student senior workshop to participate in this initiative.

Working closely with PSAA, a team of students crafted a proposal to advance the City’s policies surrounding street murals and public art for the collective empowerment of Portland’s street artist community, drawing on street art best practices and case studies from around the world. The proposal combines research, original data collection, and analysis to present policy alternatives allowing Portland to better leverage its thriving street arts culture and solidify the City’s identity as a haven for creatives.

By listening to stories from artists and free wall organizers from around the world, and working with policymakers, property owners, and other stakeholders, this team developed recommendations supporting street art’s potential to achieve City-wide district revitalization goals and use art as a means to include the voices and perspectives of historically marginalized communities.

To remain updated on the process join the PSAA community list for notifications about upcoming related events.

Please attend the presentation to Portland City Council on Wednesday, August 7, 2019 @ 9:30 am. We welcome your support at the hearing!

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Sow Radical Seeds


Introducing PSAA’s newest mural, Sow Radical Seeds, at the Montavilla Farmers Market (7700 SE Stark St). This mural was designed and painted by an all-female team of artists: Girl MobbSara Eileen, and Portland's own N.O. Bonzo. It depicts two strong women, sowing the seeds of radical community-driven change, nurturing a more sustainable world where communities have food security, food sovereignty, and equitable access to healthy nutritious foods. It took the artists 3 full days to complete the mural. It is the perfect backdrop to the weekly farmer’s market. PSAA has been working with Montavilla neighborhood residents and hoping to secure more walls for art in the near future.

The mural came into existence thanks to efforts by the Montavilla Neighborhood Association and PSAA. Working together in just one week they secured community-supported funding, an artist team, and a city mural permit.


PSAA, the Montavilla Neighborhood Association, and Montavilla Farmers Market officially introduced the mural to the neighborhood by hosting a community meeting where artists, organizers, and farmers came together to talk about how they sow radical seeds in the community with the work they do.


At the meeting, Javier Lara of Anahuac Produce spoke about his work as a farmer, community leader and activist for human rights. His philosophy on farming stems from a deep connection to nature, and his practice mimics those beliefs. Javier says farming is “more than just local or organic, it has to do with community, and human beings are part of this system.” Javier also fights for farmworkers’ rights as well by working in partnership with PCUN-Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United). PCUN is Oregon’s farmworkers union and the largest Latino organization in the state.

Lily Matlock of Lil' Starts also spoke at the meeting about her 2-acre urban farm located in the East Columbia neighborhood of NE Portland. Lil’ Starts uses permaculture and biodynamic principles to grow clean, healthy produce and robust productive plant starts for local farmers markets, restaurants, and their two CSA programs.

This mural and community meeting was an opportunity to meet people who are sowing radical seeds in Montavilla, and soak up some inspiration for your own community good works! 

Please consider donating to this project, to show your support for the artists time and creativity! So far we have raised just enough to cover supplies and the city mural permit, but we also want to try to compensate the artists for some of their donated time:


Rotating Graffiti Art Walls

A brief overview of several rotating graffiti art walls in the U.S. 

Tacoma Graffiti Garages | Tacoma, Washington [2008-2013]

The City of Tacoma partnered with a private property owner to transform an open-air parking garage in downtown into a free space for graffiti. Paint was only permitted on Sundays only. This program was done in partnership with the City of Tacoma and its impact was tracked by the city. The city aimed to: 1) connect with artists who would not necessarily apply for a permit or grant and 2) provide a safe space for people to paint in public. In their research, the city found that graffiti in the immediate vicinity increased slightly, but the overall amount of graffiti found in the city reduced. The free wall in essence concentrated graffiti into a centralized space. The graffiti garages became a community gathering space, tourist attraction, and populate film and video shoot location. A few complaints were received early on, but pushback eventually subsided. Eventually in late 2013, the garage owner chose to stop allowing graffiti at the site citing safety and overuse as the cause for their decision.

Community Chalkboard | Charlottesville, Virginia [2007-Present]

The Community Chalkboard + Podium is an interactive, democratic, and uncensored monument to the first amendment, offering the public a venue to practice of the right to free expression. The chalkboard is 60’ by 7’ high, and made of slate. It is located directly in front of Charlottesville City Hall and is part of an area known as First Amendment Plaza. Due to the low barrier medium, a wide array of people interact with this wall on a daily basis. This project joins educators, artists, and designers with local youth to explore and interpret the places where they live. It acts as a public discussion board for a variety of discourse including political, social and global issues. It has received an Urban Excellence Silver Medal in the Bruner Award Program. The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression manages the wall, and the design came from Architects Peter O'Shea Wilson and Robert Winstead. Cleaning and maintenance is done mostly by volunteers who live or work nearby, and it is cleaned at least twice a week since it is so popular.

Free Expression Tunnel | Raleigh, North Carolina [1968-Present]

A long pedestrian tunnel under the railroad tracks at North Carolina State University has served as a public free wall since 1968, when it was first painted to celebrate returning veterans.  Anyone is permitted to decorate the tunnel walls at any time. Campus clubs and organizations often paint the tunnel to promote events and graffiti artists use it as practice space. Since 2010 there has been an ongoing tradition of a weekly ‘freestyle cypher’ where local artists and students gather to freestyle, beat box, sign, play instruments, recite poetry and network. The tunnel has only had one documented issue come up, which occurred after President Obama was elected. Racist graffiti appeared with threats against Obama. The U.S. Secret Service quickly identified the four students responsible for the hate graffiti and the students were expelled.

Post Alley in Pike Place | Seattle, Washington [1993-Present]

Since 1907, this labyrinthine of angled streets and steep grades in downtown Seattle has maintained a distinctive physical and cultural character. One of the main points of interest of Pike Place, for both locals and visitors alike is Post Alley. This alley gets its name from the Seattle Post, which used to be located at the alley's southern end. Today, the narrow alley passage is famous for its gum and wheatpaste art wall. The gum tradition began in 1993 by patrons of a nearby theatre. It is unclear how long the wheatpaste art wall has existed, but it's past is likely intertwined with the historic tradition of pasted city notices and advertisements, especially considering this is a high-traffic corridor once occupied by a newsprint company. With both the gum and wheatpaste walls, the Pike Place Market management and the City of Seattle police take a “hands off” approach to these public interventions, allowing and even somewhat encouraging freedom of speech and expression in these spaces. Both have become a huge tourist-draw, attracting visitors to participate in this public intervention and snap photos. Over the years, the gum has spread quite a bit. So much so that local street artists have attempted to clean the gum off the wheatpaste side of the alley. The City of Seattle's sanitary department finally stepped in to help clean off some of the build-up in 2015. City crews undertook a multi-day process to completely clean the alley. Within hours of being clean the gum started to re-appear and artists from all over the Pacific Northwest descended upon the alley to reclaim one side of the alley for pasted paper art. For the foreseeable future, Post Alley is one of the United States most open and accessible spaces for public art and expression. No permits or scheduling is needed, just show up anytime of the day or night with a pack of gum or wheat paste and go to work

TUBS | Seattle, Washington [2007-2014]

For 7 years, the former 104-year old building known as TUBS sat vacant at the corner of 50th and Roosevelt in the University District, amidst a bustling urban neighborhood. In 2009, the building owner thought it's demise was near, so they invited graffiti artists to use the 12,000-square-foot space as a canvas for their art and expression in the meantime. The owner wanting to provide the community an "ephemeral and evolving" piece of curated street art. Over time, the space opened up even more to other artists, and it essentially became a free wall - a hot spot for Seattle graffiti. A year after the free wall began, the City had received over 900 graffiti complaints. But the building owner fought back, citing their private property rights and community appreciation for the art. By this point, TUBS had become a tourist destination and like many graffiti meccas, served as an urban backdrop for photographers and filmmakers. In response to the complaints, the City of Seattle said they're hands were tied and they had no power to force the owner to clean up their building. Seattle City Attorney Ed McKenna said, "Legally, we're in a difficult position. We can't force the owner to remove his graffiti, so we have pretty much have exhausted every remedy." The City of Seattle defines graffiti as "unauthorized markings." The difference with TUBS was that the building owner willingly allowed their building to become a "free wall," so the City of Seattle could not fine or penalize them for graffiti. The free wall at TUBS continued for 6 more years until 2014 when it was finally demolished to make way for a large condo building. The TUBS free wall was an important piece of Seattle's urban art history and unique when it comes to other cities in the U.S.

SODO Freewall | Seattle, Washington [2012-2013]

The owners of a warehouse building on Occidental Avenue across from the Starbucks Headquarters, in the SODO neighborhood of Seattle welcomed graffiti artists of all types to come create art on an over 100-foot wall that backs up to the train tracks. This was a non-formally managed project where artists have free reign, and the work changed often. Because the project was on private property and backs to an industrial area, there was minimal conflict with the larger community over the activity and content surrounding the project.  

Olympia Free Wall | Olympia, Washington [2000-Present]

This free wall is located on the backside of the State Theater, in downtown Olympia. It is part of a network of urban alleyways. The walls near the free wall are marked with warning signs to not paint here and are buffed regularly to control spill-over graffiti.  

HOPE Outdoor Gallery | Austin, Texas [2011-Present]

This ‘community paint park’ is located in downtown Austin, TX. This educational project is managed by the non-profit HOPE Events and was launched in 2011 with the help of street artist Shepard Fairey. The paint park provides artists, arts education classes, and community groups the opportunity to display large-scale art pieces driven by inspirational, positive and educational messaging. The park has broadened based on the response from local families, community members and the Austin Creative Class. It has become an inspirational outlet and creative destination for all that come to visit and is recognized as one of the Top 10 Artistic destinations in Texas. The park has provided many benefits to the community including job creation for local artists, connections to art commissions, a site for school classes and field trips, live art projects, dance videos, breakdancing and urban agriculture classes. The HOPE Outdoor Gallery is located on private property. Anyone over 18 years old who wants to paint must register beforehand by emailing the coordinators. An adult must accompany any youth wishing to paint or visit. When registering, artists are asked to fill out a question form, provide proof of ID, submit a sketch or mock-up of the art intended, and sign a waiver in order to receive credentials. The park is only open for painting between 9am and 7pm daily, and no one is allowed to paint after dark. Painting passes are available for pick-up on Saturdays and Sundays during designated hours. Painters without proper credentials (a painting pass) are asked to leave and may be subject to arrest for trespassing. All participants must respect the existing art, be courteous to the neighborhood and dispose of all your trash. In January of 2018 it was announced that the HOPE Outdoor Gallery is relocating and expanding with the creation of a new six-acre project launching at Carson Creek Ranch in southeast Austin.

5Pointz | Long Island City, Queens, New York City [1993-2014]

Starting in 1993, developer Jerry Wolkoff gave permission to a group of graffiti artists to decorate his building to try and deter vandalism in the area. Over time, the building became covered in vibrant street art and the building was rented to artists as studio space. The space was managed as a rotating art wall and artists needed to arrange to paint ahead of time. It was a mecca for artists from all over the world to come and add to the murals.  For over 20 years, the location was a tourist destination, and also helped Long Island City become the vibrant neighborhood it is now. The owner eventually tore down the building, and the site is now the subject of a federal court case filed by the artists who say the artwork itself was their property based on the Visual Artists Rights Act. (V.A.R.A). The photos below were taken in 2014 after the notorious buffing of 5Pointz by owner Jerry Wolkoff. 

Special thanks to PSAA Intern Erika Galt for help researching and editing this article. 

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.

Let Dreams Soar Mural Pic 1.jpg

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 History of Zero-Tolerance Graffiti Abatement Laws in Portland

Graffiti abatement “zero-tolerance” laws in the U.S. are primarily based on an outdated and unproven (perhaps even disproven) theory commonly referred to as “The Broken Window Theory.” This theory was first outlined in 1982 by two researchers, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. The premise was that a place which looked like it was not being taken care of, and had things like broken windows and trash in them sends messages to criminals that the space is not regulated or controlled. This appearance of neglect would then attract all sorts of violent and quality of life crimes, descending the area into chaos. Even though Wilson and Kelling only very briefly mentioned graffiti as one of these “symbols of disorder,” the lasting effects of their idea on the criminalization of graffiti culture and our urban landscapes, with the patch work of buff we often see, can still be felt today across the country.

More recent research calls into question the legitimacy of the Broken Window Theory because of the lack of evidence supporting its validity; there is not a direct correlation between violent crimes and so-called quality of life crimes, such as graffiti. This broken windows and zero-tolerance reasoning is a common tool in cities to make a mostly harmless misdemeanor (like graffiti) into a felony.

Zero-tolerance graffiti policing had its origins in New York City during the Giuliani administration and then eventually spread across the U.S. Zero-tolerance approach to graffiti abatement in Portland can be traced back to Hugh McDowell, the Office of Neighborhood Involvement’s (ONI) Graffiti Prevention Coordinator in 1998 (prior to Marcia Dennis taking the reins).

McDowell drafted a detailed “Anti-Graffiti Strategy” which outlined Portland’s new zero-tolerance approach to graffiti. The City even tried to implement a "graffiti free" zone in inner industrial SE Portland, but that intense effort of course failed. This attempt was infamously mocked by the classic Portland film The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal (2001).

During this time, Portland’s graffiti abatement efforts became more formalized and Graffiti Abatement and Removal moved from a sub-category under “Crime Prevention” in ONI to a separate Service Level [program].

In 1998, the City of Portland also enacted the “Graffiti Nuisance Abatement Trust Fund” that helped gather city and business funding to support these increased graffiti abatement efforts. These funds went towards paying for the cost of graffiti removal, purchasing graffiti removal equipment and supplies, and for personnel to administer the new graffiti nuisance abatement ordinance.

The City of Portland’s new approach was outlined in this news article:

“Estimate the damage in 1998 at $2 million, much of it caused by 50 to 80 hard-core taggers. Fed up, city officials in August that year ratcheted up the city's response: They created a zero-tolerance zone in the Central Eastside Industrial Area, adopted a tougher anti-graffiti ordinance requiring swift cleanup, hired a full-time staff person to coordinate the city's $280,000 graffiti-abatement program and subtly put more pressure on police to nab the hard-to-catch criminals. Today, Mayor Vera Katz thinks it's working: Since 1997, the city's six-day-a-week graffiti cleanup crew has repainted more than 14,000 sites, and, in the past year alone, the city has investigated or prosecuted about 40 vandals. We aren't going to let up, Katz says. Oregon's 1997 repeat property-offender law means a minimum of 13 months in prison for the most serious vandals, and some states fight back even harder.”

In 2007, an increased effort to crackdown on graffiti resulted in the City of Portland adopting a new policy regulating "Graffiti Materials and Sales.” This policy is now commonplace in most large U.S. cities. Under this policy, if a store sells spray paint, aerosol tips/nozzles, paint pens, glass cutting, or etching tools they are required to verify the photo ID from purchasers and keep a log of specific information on products sold, including the name of the purchaser, their driver’s license or ID number, and address.

The store must also secure all graffiti materials to be inaccessible to purchasers without employee assistance (i.e., in a locked case, behind the checkout counter). Strangely, these types of laws act more as an annoying slight deterrent for two reasons. It is extremely unlikely and difficult (if not impossible) to prosecute someone, especially in a city, by connecting them to a graffiti crime with only spray paint purchasing evidence; graffiti artists need to be caught in the act or on camera. However, there are ways around these city ordinances. Today, companies like Montréal-based Bombing Science sell graffiti supplies worldwide online which only require a valid credit card.

The City of Portland also regulates graffiti in its landscape with the controversial “Graffiti Nuisance Property Code,” requiring all graffiti to be removed within 10 days after being reported. Essentially, any graffiti or street art reported to the City that does not have a city-issued mural permit or waiver, is required to be removed even if it was done with permission or the property owner. If a building is labeled as a “graffiti nuisance property” and the illicit art does not get buffed within 10 days, the property owner will receive a fine. On top of paying for the City’s buffing, the property owner could face a fine of $250 for each abatement instance. If the owner refuses to let the City on the property, the City Graffiti Abatement team may request a judge to issue a warrant to access the private property to remove the graffiti.

All it takes is one disgruntled or vigilante graffiti reporter for this cascade of events to happen. The City has no formal process for gauging the severity of the situation, the consensus of public opinion on the situation, or the possible community support for the art. For example, the ArtsBase controversy on Williams a few years ago.

Additionally, all of this graffiti removal and abatement is done in the name of “public safety and health; however, this “broken windows” mindset only represents one way of thinking about graffiti and how it operates in our cities. PSAA receives countless inquires from people wanting to see the best of Portland graffiti. Cities across the world use their vibrant graffiti culture as an asset in their tourist marketing efforts. Street art and graffiti events worldwide bring huge crowds.  Furthermore, it is often said by the community that harsh measures to regulate graffiti only result in a proliferation of vandalism-like tagging, and suppress more artistic ventures, and the indoctrination of youth into traditional graffiti culture (that is at least bound by codes and pillars of respect).

We ask, whose public safety and health are these draconian graffiti removal efforts supporting? Surely not the people who actually live in these neighborhoods, who either choose to live there for their “gritty urban DIY feel,” and/or have much bigger safety and health concerns to grabble with (toxins in the earth and air, actual violent crime, rising cost of living, etc.). Cities across the country, including Portland, should reevaluate their priorities and focus on things that the vast majority of their populations are actually concerned about, and not spend precious tax dollars fighting an imaginary war on graffiti that will certainly never be won. No city in the history of human civilization has ever been “graffiti free,” nor will there ever be.

Analyzing the Data: Portland “Hate & Political” Graffiti

The City of Portland manages graffiti primarily though the Graffiti Abatement Program, which is operated under the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI). This program works with residents and business owners to identify, report, and remove graffiti in the city. The Graffiti Abatement Program's annual budget goes towards paying for personnel salaries, contracts with graffiti removal companies, and providing volunteer cleanup supplies. Although Graffiti Abatement Program’s staffing has changed over the years, it currently employs one full-time program coordinator and a part-time assistant.

The Willamette Week recently published data obtained via a public records request. This data shows that the Graffiti Abatement Program has logged 99 instances of what they classified as “hate or political graffiti” in Portland since Nov. 1, 2016.

The data showed that almost half of the graffiti reported under this classification during this time (46 of the 99 instances) included some sort of negative reference to Trump. The most common tag that is being classified as “hate or political graffiti” in Portland since the election is "Fuck Trump." The second most common, was swastikas with 24 reports.

Infographic Created and Published by the Willamette Week, 3/29/17

Infographic Created and Published by the Willamette Week, 3/29/17

At first glance, the “rise” of swastikas appearing on our streets is obviously very concerning. We would however wonder, how many reports of these there were prior to the election, on average. We have unfortunately seen swastikas sprinkled throughout Portland’s graffiti for years. Oregon has historically been a hot bed of KKK activity and was founded as a “whites-only” state. In the mid 1920’s, the KKK's membership was estimated between 14,000 to 20,000 members. During that time, Oregon’s Governor Walter M. Pierce (1922-1926) overtly supported by the Klan and promoted the Klan’s agenda. It was not until 1999, when the Oregon state legislature held a "Day of Acknowledgement" to recognize the past discrimination earlier legislatures had sanctioned, and finally offically removed language from the state's constitution preventing African Americans from owning property in Oregon.

What is concerning us about this report, when it comes to graffiti advocacy, is that the Graffiti Abatement Program is lumping “Fuck Trump” graffiti (and other similar anti-Trump graffiti) in together with swastikas and other real hate graffiti directed at minorities – all under this broad umbrella of “hate or political graffiti.”

At a heated public meeting on March 3rd, 2017, the Graffiti Abatement Program made a presentation to City Council about the need for more graffiti abatement funding, citing first and foremost a “significant increase” in reports of “hate graffiti.”

This knee jerk reaction to call for increased resources for graffiti abatement correlates with reports that Oregon leads the nation with an increase of “hate incidents’ that have swept the U.S. in the month since Trump was elected.

During a City Council meeting, Commissioner Nick Fish picked up on this blending of these two types of graffiti, asking ONI what they classified as “hate” or “biased” graffiti and if they had a “working definition” of it. In response, the Graffiti Abatement Program representative said that hate graffiti was “against historically oppressed groups.”

So, based on their own definition, is the City of Portland saying that Trump and his cabinet are a “historically oppressed group?” Is the fact that they City of Portland is lumping anti-Trump graffiti in with real hate graffiti against historically marginalized and oppressed groups inflating the counts?

We see “Fuck Trump” and “Not my president” tags as understandable public outcry against a possibly illegitimate presidency that represents the wealthy 1% as very different from swastikas or a ‘Fuck Feminism” tags. Although these may all be “political” in nature, there is a huge difference when it comes the symbolism and motivations involved – either standing up against oppression or promoting it. 

We highly suggest the City of Portland further specify and modify their working definition of “hate graffiti” and clearly separate real hate graffiti that targets "protected classes" as outlined by the Civil Rights act of 1964 and Oregon law (Chapter 659A), from general political graffiti that is not directed at these protected and oppressed groups.

To compare Trump to groups that have been subjected to generational hate and mass genocide is an insult. Do not sound un-needed alarms to an already distressed and distraught community. And do not use inflated and skewed data as a tool to argue for more graffiti abatement funding.

Just this week, the home of an Iranian-American man in Troutdale was targeted by anti-Muslim hate graffiti.  This type of targeted and hateful graffiti is the real concern and crime.  The City of Portland should be focusing on preventing and prosecuting real hate graffiti, and supporting programs like the new Portland United Against Hate to develop collaborative strategies to protect vulnerable communities from hate and intimidation. All of this comes at a bad time as ONI is under public scrutiny after the recent and surprising resignation of its Director after a scathing audit of the agency.

It is also important to understand the larger context in which the Graffiti Abatement Program is operating within and how its funding has changed over time, along with the amount of graffiti found on Portland streets.

From 1995 to 2013 there were a total 10,341 incidents of graffiti reported in the City of Portland, which accounted for 8% of the total counts of vandalism. Between 2004 to 2013, vandalism in Portland decreased or remained stable except in a few neighborhoods.

Between 2009 and 2017, the number of graffiti reports being made has increased, but this could partially be due to the implementation of the pdxReport app making it much more easy for people to report things like graffiti and potholes.

Between 2009 and 2012 the budget for the Graffiti Abatement Program also increased. However, this increase in graffiti abatement spending did not have that much effect on decreasing the amount of graffiti reported.

For instance, in 2011-2012 GAP’s budget spiked to $527,711. The increase of the GAP budget in 2011 was to support the salaries of two Police officers dedicated to graffiti investigations. This huge increase in spending was justified due to reactionary concerns after Portland hosted a large graffiti art show in the summer of 2011. The Special Delivery show, organized by Endless Canvas an Oakland-based street art collective, drew artists to Portland from all around the country and was one of Portland’s largest art events in the past decade. After this spike in graffiti abatement spending the number of graffiti reports made in 2012 went down some, but still not to pre-2009 levels.

Over the past few fiscal years, between 2014 and 2017 the GAP budget has remained fairly consistent, around 350k, as have the number of reported cases of graffiti at about 8000 per year.

If you would like to comment on ONI’s upcoming budget decision on June 8th, please email Commissioner Chloe Eudaly who oversees ONI and attend the City budget hearings on April 11th and 19th to voice your opinion. 

The Rise of Anti-Trump Graffiti

Photo: @artistpegasus

Photo: @artistpegasus

The 2016 U.S. presidential election has spurred a considerable about of tension across the world. People are waking up, becoming more politically active, expressing their opinions. From scrawlings and slogans, to informational wheatpastes and large-scale murals, a flood of politically-charged graffiti has hit the streets. Here, we highlight just a few iconic examples of resistance art making waves online, and a few piece of graffiti that have been documented on the streets of Portland recently. City municipalities across the U.S are reporting considerable spikes of graffiti, but usually the "hate graffiti" such as swastikas are dominating the news. As expected, in times of political and social strife, people from all walks of life are using public spaces as message boards, a way to spread and amplify messages.   

In February 2017, street artist Pegasus portrayed Trump in a wheatpaste as Hitler captioned with, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” An aphorisms originated by American philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952). A powerful message paseed down over generations, drawing upon historical narratives of the hostile dictatorships and sharply applying it to the current political situation in the U.S. A few days after the piece went up, Pegasus informed the Huffington Post that he had received death threats due to this image. His response towards the intimidation was, “I will never give into fear mongering, nor will I ever be censored—I am American and I believe in freedom of speech and artistic freedom of expression.”

Image: @TABBYthis

Image: @TABBYthis

TABBY, a street artist from Austria, has created an entire series of anti-Trump pieces. TABBY’s, “Don’t Feed The Trolls” depicts a clan of Trump trolls with golden toupees flying off to the side. When asked about the piece TABBY stated, “Trump is everything that’s right and wrong with America and the world—He’s the American dream of being super wealthy and saying what you want, while being totally out of touch with reality.”

Photo: @TABBYthis

Photo: @TABBYthis

Another common theme is Trump embracing himself, or Vladimir Putin. Harkening back on Banksy’s famous “Kissing Coppers” and the Berlin Wall mural of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German President Erich Honecker locking lips, artists today are utilizing this iconic and provocative imagery. 

Art by: @designerBONANU

Art by: @designerBONANU

Pieces like these symbolize a challenge to gay stereotypes (by depicting strong authoritative male figures in ways not typically not seen in mainstream media), comment on legal controversies (like gay marriage), and with TABBY's piece, sharply criticizing Trump's narcissistic tendencies. 

In a similar vein, projection light activists have displayed the image of pregnant Trump being cradled by Putin, promoting the message of 'love through hate.'  

Photo: @LoveThroughHate

Photo: @LoveThroughHate

One of the more iconic and lasting pieces we have seen during the 2016 election cycle was the “Dump Trump” mural painted by American punster Hansky on Orchard St in NYC in August 2015. Here, Trump is depicted as an emoji-like pile of shit.

Hanksy and his pose even took a cross-country #DumpAcrossAmerica trip protesting Trump. His team went as far as getting into a rally and got Trumps attention. When Trump realized there was a disturbance and saw the protest signs, he remaking “What is that? A potato?”

Hanksy also offered the public free downloadable versions of his work, allowing the image to be replicated and used for protests all around the world. When interviewed by ArtNetNews about the piece Hanksy stated, “I painted that silly Trump mural in NYC late last summer a few weeks after the wigged one announce his presidential run. The mural was a joke and so was Trump. Unfortunately, the punch line never came and it’s scary as hell.” The mural was later buffed, and in response Hanksy said, “It was a shit mural anyway, however, if anyone has a nice giant wall, preferably in direct view of 725 5th Ave [Trump Tower], I’d be happy to paint it again.”

Photo: @dek__2dx (Via Juxtapoz)

Photo: @dek__2dx (Via Juxtapoz)

Street artists aren’t just sticking to walls, Miami graffiti artists, TESOE, SHINE, and CRIS, took over a billboard and painted over an American flag with a “DEPORT TRUMP” message. Little has been said about this piece, but its message is clear and taking a stand on Trump’s anti-immigration political actions.

Photo: Via Vice

Photo: Via Vice

INDECLINE, an American anarchist art collective made up of several artists and supporters from different states. INDECLINE first spray-painted Trump with a red ball gag covering his mouth and the words “¡RAPE TRUMP!” at the Tijuana Mexico/United States border with specific instructions on how to travel to the White House from there. This was INDECLINE’s response to Trump’s inflammatory statement: “[Mexico is] sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” 

When the anonymous creative director of INDECLINE was interviewed by VICE about the piece he explained, “We don’t honestly expect anyone to crawl over the border and follow the instructions and find Trump and rape him, but we want to raise awareness about the horrible shit he said. Controversy works better than something subtle.”

Photo: James Bareham (Via The Verge)

Photo: James Bareham (Via The Verge)

In August 2016, five identical statues of a completely nude and unflattering depiction of Trump appeared overnight on street corners in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Seattle, and New York City. This unique street intervention was also done by INDECLINE and was titled "The Emperor Has No Balls." INDECLINE told the Washington Post, "like it or not, Trump is a larger-than-life figure in world culture at the moment. Looking back in history, that’s how those figures were memorialized and idolized in their time - with statues." These installations captured viral attention across the world in just a few hours after they were erected in the street corners across the U.S. When asked by MMC The Monitor about the meaning of the lude installations, the collective responded, “Donald Trump, our modern day emperor of fascism and bigotry is never installed in the most powerful political and military position, the man goes out of his way to ridicule everybody, he deserves it.”

Photo Arlene Mejorado

Photo Arlene Mejorado

Approaching the current political situations from a different angle, L.A.’s Shepard Fairey, (well-known for the iconic OBEY logo and the “HOPE” poster during Obama's candidacy), launched his “We the People” project. This series of posters consisted of Muslims, Native American, Latinos, and African Americans along with the first words of the U.S. Constitution, “We the People Defend Dignity,” “We the People Protect Each Other,” and “We the People are Greater Than Fear.” Fairey wanted to focus on the essence of what “We the People” represents to the public. Unlike his previous “Hope” posters, Fairey choose to challenge the president-elect by depicting powerful images from the “communities that the conservative white right wing can’t bring themselves to treat equally.” With the help of a very successful Kickstarter campaign, leading up to the Inauguration Day Women's March, Fairey and his team purchased full-page color ads in the Washington Post to be distributed to 600,000 people across the U.S., distributed the images at Metro stops, via moving vans, and at drop spots in Washington D.C. 

Randomly encountering these striking and provocative images while we go about our daily lives resonates in ways common media and news cannot. Reminding us of the dire situation at hand - the clear and present threats to democracy, liberty, and justice for all. Throughout history, graffiti has always been a tool for the disenfranchised and disillusioned. These street campaigns give voice to the communities that feel threatened, all while shining a harsh light on deeply rooted prejudices and privileges.

Arguably, some of the best art and graffiti makes us feel uneasy, challenges us to think differently, ask questions, provokes our emotions, and pushes ourselves beyond our daily routines. In the best-case scenario, resistance graffiti makes us feel like we are not alone, perhaps giving us the courage to stand up for ourselves and even better, launch into real action. Graffiti has, and will always be a powerful voice from beneath; a cry, scream, and demand.

The seeds of uncertainty have certainly been sown over the past few months. We are in uncharted waters. Use this manure as a fertilizer - to grow, sprout, and spread seeds of resistance.

More images of Anti-Trump graffiti...


Photo: Chris Christian

Photo: Chris Christian

Photo: Portland Street Art Alliance

Photo: Portland Street Art Alliance




Art as Resistence

 In Janurary 2017, PSAA director Tiffany Conklin took part in a panel presentation at Portland State University that focused on the Intersections of Activism and Effective Nonviolent Action Tactics. This event was hosted by the Peace Action Exhibition & PSU Students United for Nonviolence. The panel sought to explore the intersections of art, protest, and law in making positive change and how people can get involved in creating meaningful and sustainable change. Other panelists included Gregory McKelvey, one of the leaders of Portland Resistance, and Steve Kanter, a Lewis & Clark law professor and former president of the Oregon ACLU. The following is a recap of PSAA's presenation. 

The human urge to make art is rooted in our desire to develop and share lasting narratives that reflect, inform, and construct our identities and societies. The making of art is an important and vital part of human evolution. It has served as one of our main modes of communication and culture building. Therefore, art can be used as a “conceptual frame” through which observations and interpretations about society can be explored, and new ideas put forth.

Resistance art often aims to influence attitudes. It interrupts and exposes injustices, mocks and disarms perceived evils, and pushes for collective action against powerful social, political, and corporate structures. Throughout history, it has been a tool for the disenfranchised and disillusioned. In most revolutions, some sort of artistic and creative messaging has helped the movements mobilize and sustain themselves. Social movements require a lot of communication between many of different types of people. In order to reach everyone, these “public consciousness wars” are often fought symbolically and literally in the media, on city streets, and through art and literature.

When analyzing resistance art, one similarity is very clear, it relies heavily on the use of symbols; place holders for larger ideas and shared narratives. However, creating powerful symbols is not easy. Speaking for and representing something significant enough to be meaningful to a community, requires an engagement with deeply embedded symbols in that community, as well as dependency on already agreed upon visual cues. 


Join, or Die is one of the oldest commonly used symbols of resistance. Originally drawn by Benjamin Franklin in 1754, the cartoon depicts the early American colonies as a snake divided into 8 segments; a representation of colonial unity. Franklin’s ability to develop and disseminate powerful messages like this helped reinforce his influence as an effective communicator.

The Resistance Fist dates back to ancient Assyria, where depictions of the goddess Ishtar served as a symbol of resistance in the face of violence. In modern times, the Industrial Workers of the World first used the fist as a logo in 1917. The symbol is now highly recognizable and adopted by oppressed groups around the world, as a symbol of solidarity, strength, and resistance.


The Anarchy Symbol is also well-known. The "A" stands for "anarchy," and the "O" stands for "order;" together standing for "Anarchy is the Mother of Order.” The first recorded use of this symbol was by the Federal Council of Spain of the International Workers Association in 1868. 

The Guy Fawkes Mask is another old symbol of resistance, dating back to 1605. This is not just a symbol, it also serves an important logistical purpose. Remaining anonymous can help one evade authorities and continue revolutionary activities. In certain situations, having your identity exposed can put you, your friends, and family at risk. However, this symbols is highly co-opted. It was the top-selling item on Amazon in 2011 and Time Warner owns the rights to the image, so they profit from every sale. 


Like resistance art, propaganda art is also a mode of artistic communication, aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position. Since propaganda is often used by political regimes to manipulate people’s emotions by displaying facts selectively and presenting utopian (sometimes false) views of the society, it’s often viewed negatively. For better or worse, over time, propaganda art has had a profound influence on public consciousness. The techniques used by propaganda art are not inherently bad; as it can also be used in a positive way, to relay things like health recommendations, PSAs, and encouraging people to vote. 

Take for example, the evolution of the We Can Do It poster created by Westinghouse Electric in 1943. Initially, it was used to boost the morale of female employees so they would be more productive. Later in the 1980s, the poster was rediscovered and used to promote feminism. It is often mistaken for Rosie the Riveter, also created in 1943, but by Norman Rockwell. Again, Rosie was a “call to arms” for women to become strong capable females to support the war. Examples of this imagary can be found being used all around the world and continue to be used and adapted today. 

We can also see examples of resistance art in political cartoons and satire art. Many of these cartoons depict harsh commentaries and critiques, encouraging people to question the politics of the time. For example, the Pyramid of Capitalism has been a powerfully illustrative critique of capitalism. Painted in 1911, it depicts a system of social stratification and economic inequality. It is a powerful reminder that if the workers of the world withdraw their support, the system would literally topple over. 

We could also look at many different types of examples of resistance being made in the fine arts. For example, the post-apocalyptic worlds by Scott Listfield, or the satirical portraits of world leaders and dictators by Scott Scheidly (photos above). It is important to remember that galleries and museums have more limited access than public space, so while it can be powerful, this art may only reach more privileged urban audiences.

Photography can also be used for activism. For example, in 2017, an Oregon community college student created her #SignedByTrump project for a photography class using Donald Trump quotes painted on mostly nude female bodies. These photos went viral right before the 2017 presidental election. Or the photography of Portland-based Yay PDX, a local activist documenting protests and our city’s houseless population.

Light Installation, Portland Oregon

Light Installation, Portland Oregon

One of the most influential places where art can make a profound impact  is when it’s placed in public space. Whether its scribbled, scribed, pasted, placed, painted, or acted out; our city’s public spaces have always been a hub for expression and communication. They are, after all, the original arena for free expression and democracy. Graffiti and other types of urban interventions are a way to freely, automatously, and democratically communicate with each other, regardless of social or financial standing. You can reach a lot of different types of people, they just need to be passing by. You don’t need to have enough money to pay for a billboard or TV ad to get a message across. 

Public art provides a space for representation; a way to expand reach and amplify voices. If the embedded message is particularly relevant and powerful, people will take photos of it, it will end up on the internet and in social media, where its reach is almost infinite and it will live on forever, even if it’s removed from public space. Another important thing to realize is that during revolutions, governments not only increase their surveillance of public and online spaces. They will often shut down social media and limit internet access (like they did in Egypt and Greece recently). In these instances, we’ve seen graffiti used as a way to continue to communicate dissenting ideas, agitations, and instructions. Recently, social movements like Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution, Standing Rock, the Egyptian Revolution, and the Black Lives Matter Movement have all employed art to further their cause and spread their messages. 


In certain cities, entire organizations have formed around the focus of making and promoting resistance art. Perhaps one of the best examples is the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca. ASARO teaches art workshops for young people from Oaxaca’s impoverished districts and encourages them to translate their histories, perspectives, and social grievances into creative visual exchanges with others. They make stencils, woodcuts, wheatpastes, flyers, and public installations. They teach classes at their studio, hold meetings, maintain blogs & active social networks. By disrupting urban spaces with contradictory messages of conflict, they help to reveal inconsistences between the state’s manufactured image and the actual experiences of the people. The art they support helps summarize the critical force that comes from the periphery, to resist authoritarian political structures and capitalist economic priorities. These pieces invite viewers to stand up with the artists and participate in transforming their social realities together. 

By disrupting urban spaces with contradictory messages of conflict, ASARO helps to reveal inconsistences between the state’s manufactured image and the actual experiences of the people. The art they support helps summarize the critical force that comes from the periphery, to resist authoritarian political structures and capitalist economic priorities. These pieces invite viewers to stand up with the artists and participate in transforming their social realities together. 

Resistance art has had a profound influence on public consciousness throughout human civilization. It plays an indispensable role in the formation of public discourses, representation, and our struggles towards democracy. The best art challenges us to think differently, provokes our emotions, and encourages healthy debate with others. In uncertain times, when economic, social, and political systems fail to support society, art and graffiti serve a vital function of communicating grassroots ideas, sympathies, and demands. 


Graffiti is a polarizing phenomenon. For decades, its presence has fueled intense debate. For some, graffiti evokes fear and is viewed as strictly criminal vandalism; a destructive attack upon an otherwise clean and orderly society. For others, graffiti is seen as a natural form of human expression, a sign of a vibrant modern culture, and an important form of grassroots resistance. By definition, public space is supposed to be open to everyone. The quality of our public spaces, and the degree of access we have to them, speaks volumes about what we, as a society, believe to be important. Access to public space is important because these spaces serve as the only real arena for common democratic actions.

Across various municipal entities, the City of Portland spends an average of $2-5 million a year on graffiti abatement and removal. The City’s Graffiti Abatement Program (GAP) began in 2007, operating under the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI). GAP employs one full-time program coordinator and a part-time assistant, who manage the program and organize volunteers to carry out periodic graffiti removal “sweeps” of Portland. ONI allocates approximately $40,000 a year in community grants for graffiti abatement and prevention ($42,000 in 2010, $40,000 in 2011). Like many cities, it has codes regulating the sale of “graffiti materials,” such as spray paint and markers. It also has a Graffiti Nuisance Property Code that requires all reported graffiti to be removed within 10 days, or the property owner faces fines of $100 a day for everyday the graffiti remains. The City essentially operates under a zero tolerance policy where any graffiti reported (that does not have a city-issues mural permit or waiver) is required to be removed. Many of these reports come in through the City's Graffiti Hotline and the PDXReporter smartphone app. GAP works in partnership with the Graffiti Task Force that meets monthly and consists of two dedicated full-time police officers who investigate graffiti crimes, public agencies and district attorneys. Although they have publicly stated (at the 2013 and 2014 Graffiti Abatement Summit) that the main focus of the graffiti police officers is to investigate gang graffiti crimes in East Portland and other urban outskirts, many in the community say that the officers focus more effort on easier and more visible targets, such as street art and graffiti in inner Portland and in the downtown core. The officers have come under public scrutiny for targeting street art collectives and owner-permitted works. Another key player in Portland’s graffiti abatement scene is the newly created Friendly Streets, a non-profit entity that promotes livability and works in partnership with residents, businesses, public and private agencies, local officials, utility companies and others, to foster safe, attractive, and well maintained city streets. Marcia Dennis, the former head of GAP, is the vice president of Friendly Streets and one of the board members is the owner of a for-profit graffiti removal company in Portland called Graffiti Removal Services.

  • Portland taxpayers spend between $2 to 5 million annually on graffiti abatement.
  • In 2012, Portland spent $3 million on graffiti.
  • Cities across the U.S. spend between $12 to 25 billion on graffiti abatement every year.
  • Many cities now outsource graffiti abatement. For-profit private graffiti clean-up companies are increasingly common.
  • Most graffiti occurs on soon to be demolished vacant buildings. Even these structures are continuously painted over (i.e., buffed).
  • Research shows that continuously removing graffiti does not eradicate it in the long term.

In tough financial times, are these expenditures justifiable? Can our tax money be better spent?

  • Portland’s graffiti abatement program supports building felony cases whenever possible.
  • In 2012, more than 100 people were arrested in Portland for graffiti.

Are felony charges really the best approach to prosecuting those caught doing graffiti? Do felony charges really deter graffiti or prevent repeat offenses?  

  • Portland has a ‘zero-tolerance’ graffiti policy requiring that all un-permitted public expression be promptly removed.
  • If issued a citation, Portland property owners are required to remove graffiti within 10 days or face search warrants, fines, and possible imprisonment.
  • These policies are relatively new, and are based on the "Broken Windows" theory. Even though it did not directly reference graffiti when developed in the 70s, this theory is used by law enforcement to suggest that graffiti actually causes urban decay, the collapse of moral values, and physical violence.
  • If anything, graffiti arose as a response to, or a by-product of, urban disinvestment and desperate situations.
  • Research, including studies done by Harvard Law Professor, Bernard Harcourt, show that the broken windows theory has not been proven or adequately tested.

Should we blindly accept the broken windows theory? Is it right to stereotype people who do graffiti or street art as being violent criminals who lack moral values? Listen to this 2016 NPR segment about how this thoery of crime and policing was born, and how it went totally wrong.

  • Anti-graffiti campaigns often criminalize artists and further the divide between them and the larger community. 
  • It’s a common belief among anti-graffiti activists that graffiti is a ‘gateway crime’ that leads to other more serious offensives.
  • It’s estimated that less than 15% of all graffiti in the City of Portland is gang related.
  • Artists who do graffiti/street art come from all demographics. It is a world-wide phenomenon.

Why can’t we work to educate the public about the different forms of graffiti (and how to identify gang graffiti) so there’s less fear and more understanding of this global subculture?

  • Portland no longer has any designated outlets for graffiti art – they have been systematically eliminated over the past 50 years.
  • Countless NW cities (Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, San Francisco, etc.) have free walls that are open to public expression. Free walls provide a designated safe place for people to practice and refine their skills.
  • School art funding has been systematically reduced over the years, providing less opportunities for youth to express themselves artistically.

Why not explore other options that provide youth the support and safety they need to develop artistic skills and the ability to interact with public space in a more acceptable way? Why not ask residents what kind of graffiti management they prefer? Would community-specific place-based graffiti management be a more effective than a blanket zero-tolerance approach?

Above all, PSAA wants to promote more dialogue surrounding these important issues. The City of Portland, in many ways embraces the weird and quirky. Many of us choose to live in Portland because of its quality of life and vibrant cultural scene. We believe that allowing for more free expression in public space ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity to express themselves and be exposed to art in their daily lives. Having a vibrant arts scene is also a vital ingredient that helps the City of Portland attract creative professionals and artists who want to live in vibrant, accessible, dynamic, and safe city.

Read more about incidents artists have had with Portland's graffiti abatement in our article covering the forced buffing of an owner-authorized mural by a world-renounded artist. 

The City of Portland' Graffiti Abatement Project periodically organizes volunteer group "sweaps" to remove graffiti on public property along Portland's main streets. On Saturday June 28th 2014, the City of Portland’s Graffiti Abatement Program implemented a large graffiti cleanup of SE Belmont Street, between 20th and 40th Avenues. According to GAP, Belmont had been “hit hard with graffiti over the last couple of months.” Approximately 20 to 30 volunteers participated in this city-sponsored event, which provided graffiti removal training and a free continental breakfast.

A group of anonymous street art advocates participated in this community event to get a ‘sneak peek’ into Portland’s graffiti abatement efforts. As Morton’s clean-up crew moved down the street, they documented and provided satirical commentary about the politics of graffiti and graffiti removal; even going as far as interviewing a few passersby for their opinions. The next day, PSAA was sent the video below, and interviewed Morton and the other volunteer art advocates who participated in the Belmont Graffiti Cleanup Event.

In a classic détournement style, these advocates lightheartedly and subversively participated in an event that they would not have normally participated in. They wanted to see what was going on, and learn more about graffiti abatement tactics. PSAA would like to thank all the community members who participated in this neighborhood event, whether they were wearing orange vests, or simply having a conversation about what was happening around them. Strong communities are made up of an active and engaged public, so regardless of our opposing opinions on the issue, we’re happy to see people outside trying to “improve” our shared public spaces.

After speaking with participants of the event, PSAA like to pose a few questions for the city to consider: first, why spend time and money funding events that focus on scraping stickers off the back of street signs? As long as the front of the sign stays clean (for obvious safety and informational reasons), why not meet us halfway – let the community put art on the back of our street signs. Seattle takes this moderate approach, why can’t Portland? These signs are, after all, public spaces. Second, why not focus more on removing (and fining) illegal profit-driven advertisements? Ads vandalize our public realm, often without penalty. The same is not true for community members who choose to speak through art on the streets.

PSAA would like to encourage Portland artists and advocates to engage with not just their peers, but reach across the aisle and talk to the City and your neighbors. Try to understand their perspective and tell them about your perspective too. Even though we have differing opinions about how to best maintain and manage our shared public spaces, we should try to find commonalities and work together in whatever shared spaces we can.

PSAA's Full Interview with the Street Art Advocates:

PSAA: Why did you guys participate in the Belmont Graffiti Cleanup Event?

Morton and Friends: We wanted to help our community, make it a better place. We love our city and we want to change the world we live in. We wanted to remove blatant and illegal advertisements, in addition to stickers that were old, worn, and tattered. We saw this as cleaning the canvas, making way for fresh DIY art stickers. We also wanted to see what graffiti abatement was up to and how they managed events like this.

PSAA: Why do you think the City of Portland sponsored this event?

Morton and Friends: At the event, the main reason the City said graffiti removal was important to do was to make sure that tourists were not scared away from visiting certain Portland neighborhoods. As far as the focus on Belmont, who knows… they said it had been “hit hard,” but really Belmont doesn’t have any more graffiti than any other popular Portland drag.

PSAA: What were you and the other volunteers asked to do?

Morton and Friends: We were told to focus on removing stickers and a bunch of anti-abatement protest signs that had been put up along the cleanup route. When we questioned the organizers about why they were not removing ALL the other flyers on the poles, they told us to not worry about those and just focus on the anti-abatement signs. We thought that was weird because as flyers are illegal postings too. Otherwise, volunteers were told to focus on removing stickers from poles and the backsides of street signs.

PSAA: So they said to only remove stickers from the back of signs, what about the front of signs?

Morton and Friends: If the front of a sign had stickers on it, we think the entire sign was replaced in a lot of cases. I guess the solvent can damage the reflective coating on the signs, so they just have to remove and replace the whole thing. The cleaners they gave us did a good job removing the stickers pretty quickly, the stickers mostly slide right off. If the sticker didn’t come right off, they said to just scratch and destroy the sticker enough to make it unreadable.

PSAA: What did you take away from participating in the Belmont Graffiti Cleanup Event?

Morton and Friends: Surprisingly, we came away with a new understanding for the similarities between graffitists and graffiti abaters. Both want to make an impact on our community and make a positive difference. Both act to change the aesthetics of their environments. Both feel like it helps their sense of community. The main differences (between these two communities) are that aesthetically, one likes seeing community interventions and art, and the other, likes a blank, and in our opinion, very sterile environment. Also, one group uses the streets as a space to exert their right to free speech. The other group sees it as their duty to suppress this speech in the name of the law. We all felt like we were making a difference in the world!

All Photos © PSAA 


For several years, members of PSAA have attended the annual Graffiti Abatement Summits, the region’s largest anti-graffiti event. An unlikely place for graffiti art advocates, but we hoped that by hearing opposing perspectives, we would gain a better understanding of the politics of graffiti criminalization and how the City of Portland approaches graffiti abatement.

On May 23rd, PSAA attended the 2013 Graffiti Abatement Summit held in Portland. This training was provided by Portland’s Graffiti Abatement Program (part of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement) for local officials, police officers, and community members interested in learning more about the topics of graffiti prevention, conviction, and removal. 

Presentations were made by Portland’s Graffiti Police Investigator’s Matt Miller (Graffiti Vandals – Who They Are/Why They Do It) and Anthony Zanetti (Building a Case – How You Can Help), Multnomah County’s DDA Nathan Vasquez (Prosecuting Graffiti Cases), and Graffiti Abatement Coordinator Dennis LoGiudice (Abating Graffiti with Volunteers) along with a graffiti removal demonstration by the Graffiti Removal Services Corporation.

One of the main topics discussed at the Summit, was how to build felony cases against people caught doing unauthorized graffiti. For this reason, outside the building where the Summit was held, a group of local artists staged a community action, spray-painting murals, dressed in black-and-white prison uniforms. They wanted to call attention to the general criminalization of graffiti and street artists in Portland.

During Officer Matt Miller’s presentation, an audience member voiced their concerns about the lack of support for emerging artists, and the harassment of local businesses that support street art culture and graffiti-style art (the now closed Samo Lives & Railyard art galleries). This passionate outcry was met with some anger from the audience, and hostility from the presenter. The audience member was eventually escorted out by police.

Shortly after the interruption inside the Summit, three Portland Police officers arrived outside, at the community demonstration to question the group’s intentions. The police eventually left, making no arrests or demands.

Graffiti is often a symptom or sign of larger systemic societal issues, such as youth disenchantment, the privatization of public space, general resistance of mainstream and state-run systems, and the exclusiveness of the art establishment. There is a big difference in the intentions behind vandalism, gang graffiti, and ‘artistic’ expressions in the street – there are also differences in the outcomes and public acceptance of these different forms of spatial interventions.

Even though the Graffiti Abatement Officer’s presentations focused on tagging as the main problem in the city, their actions over the past few years (which are based on a zero-tolerance graffiti policy) suggest that they often do not distinguish between various forms of unauthorized expression. Unfortunately, the Summit presentations seemed to instigate a ‘culture of fear’ and intolerance and promote broad stereotyping of people who carry out unauthorized public expression in the streets. Matt Miller clearly stated that these are “bad people,” who often commit violent crimes, have no respect for the community or authority, are gang members, and drug addicts.

Instead of making broad-brush stereotypes and promoting punitive policies, PSAA would like to see our city’s Graffiti Abatement Program provide more unbiased evidence-based information, educate the public  about why graffiti actually exists and consider alternative graffiti management strategies that have shown positive outcomes in other cities (like Tacoma’s city-sponsored Graffiti Garages).

Additionally, graffiti police investigators should focus their resources on gang and hate graffiti (which they claim is the problem) and less on abating other forms of unauthorized (or unpermitted) artistic expression.

PSAA hopes that the Summit, and the subsequent reactions it sparked from the arts community, alerts Portlanders that it’s time to have a more open and inclusive dialogue about public expression in our city. This issue goes far beyond some random markings; it speaks to larger social questions about how we can better share and maintain our public spaces and how the community can engage in, and affect, public policy regarding these topics.

On Tuesday May 20th, PSAA attended the 2014 Metro Portland Graffiti Summit. Hosted by the City of Portland and Friendly Streets, the Summit is organized by the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI), the Graffiti Abatement Program (GAP), and the Portland Police Graffiti Task Force (GTF).

This event was also sponsored by several private, public and non-profit entities (including Clear Channel, Pearl District Neighborhood Association, various graffiti removal and management services, Alaska Airlines, and the Crime Prevention Association of Oregon).

The Summit Planning Committee consisted of Matt Miller and Anthony Zanetti (Portland Police Graffiti Task Force), Denay Love (Friendly Streets), Amy Archer (ONI), Dennis LoGiudice (GAP Coordinator) and Marcia Dennis (former GAP Coordinator, now Vice President of Friendly Streets).

Starting this year, the Summit was divided into two sessions. First, a private day-long police training, and second, a free 3-hour public lecture and award session.

According to Friendly Streets, the first session provided “networking between police agencies” across the US and was designed as a “tool in catching and prosecuting graffiti vandals, who often travel between states to damage property.”

The second session included visiting and local guest speakers, City officials, neighborhood association members, and graffiti removal businesses. Even Portland Mayor Charlie Hales made a brief appearance to present ONI’s Graffiti “All-Star Awards.” Unfortunately, this session opened with a statement telling the audience that this was not the time for public comment, an obvious reference to last year’s public disturbance.

The keynote speech was given by Valerie Spicer, a Vancouver, BC police officer. A presentation focused on “Tagger Behavior and Graffiti Culture.” Spicer is a PhD candidate in criminology and holds master’s degrees in art history and criminology. She is also is the co-founder of RestART, a restorative art program that engages with graffiti offenders to build self-esteem and direct them towards “pro-social activities” like community mural painting.

Spicer presented her research on graffiti subcultures and juvenile risk predictors. Her main argument was that graffiti is an at-risk youth indicator and leads to serious social-ills like drug abuse, theft, and violence. Spicer believes that the motivations behind graffiti are usually to vandalize and destroy, and not making art. Spicer sees graffiti as the only supposed “art” movement that produces a victim, and thus needs to be criminalized.

An aesthetical argument was also put forth as Spicer went through photos of fine artists’ work (such as Picasso and Monet), and compared those to the artwork of graffiti taggers at the same age. Her key argument was that the “quality” of work by the graffitists was inferior to that of fine artists.

Spicer did present some empirical data from larger studies, like that of Graham Martin (2003), who argued that if society really wants to reduce graffiti, it has the responsibility to address the underlying socio-economic issues causing graffiti and should not just criminalize the outcome. Graham believes these issues should be addressed through preventive approaches and proactive programs, not with increased penalties and criminalization.

Taking just one audience question, Spicer was asked: Do stricter laws result in less graffiti? Spicer said that in Australia and Canada (where her research is focused), current data suggests that harsher penalties do not deter graffiti.

The next speaker was Richard Toscan, a retired art school Dean from Virginia Commonwealth University who helped create downtown Portland’s Cultural District.

Toscan’s presentation, titled “The Writing on the Wall: Art, Art Schools, Money and Graffiti,” touched on a number of topics, including the Spraycopter (a DIY graffiti-spraying drone), the Pearl District’s Centennial Mills water tower (AKA Portland’s unofficial graffiti museum), and his personal quest to convince the Portland Art Museum not to sell the “Guerilla Art Kit” book.

Providing his overview of graffiti art cultures, Toscan focused on street artists who also attend art school. Toscan gave several self-proclaimed “wild guesses” of who might makeup Portland’s “Tagger Pool.” He guessed that there are currently 700 taggers in Portland, 20% of those are “art school students,” and 1% are just “art-school-wannabees.” Toscan’s opinion-statistics went as far as estimating how many graffiti writers come from each of Portland’s universities and colleges.

Toscan then called out several Portland street art and graffiti related organizations and initiatives. Included in his list, was the Portland Street Art Alliance, labeled the “The Second Front: The Graffiti Lobby.”

Toscan told the audience to ignore PSAA’s mission statement (describing it as meaningless academic jargon) and explained that what PSAA is really doing is promoting crime, destruction, and vandalism. Toscan went on to suggest that PSAA was consorting with the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) and will soon receive operational funding from them.

The final presentation was provided by Paul Watts of Graffiti Removal Services. Watts is also a board member of Friendly Streets. It is clear that one of the main functions of these summits is to provide a marketing venue for profit-seeking graffiti clean-up companies.

To clarify some of these misconceptions about PSAA…

For two years, PSAA has worked to build bridges and relationships within the city. We want to help promote all forms of public art in Portland.

RACC has been willing to meet with PSAA and listen to our concerns, ideas, and suggestions. We are concerned that Toscan suggested, in a public setting hosted by GAP, that community groups like PSAA should not be associated with. Isn’t it the duty of all public entities to be willing to meet with and at least try to understand the communities they represent and serve?

PSAA is open to speak to anyone who wants to know more about our mission and purpose. We have requested meetings with various representatives from ONI and GAP over the past two years. To date, our requests have been mostly ignored.

PSAA is a volunteer-run community group. We do not make any money advocating for public art. While we are open to opportunities for receiving city funding for specific art projects (such as murals, curated walls, and utility box art projects), we don’t have any plans for our operations to be funded by RACC.

PSAA exists because we feel passionately about the public’s right to free speech, public space, and the city. We see these rights as essential ingredients for preserving a democratic society.

In general, PSAA does not believe that graffiti is an automatic sign of urban decay or distress. Like everything, it is place-specific and the larger context and intent should always be taken into account. We see the vast majority of graffiti in Portland as a sign of urban vitalization, vibrancy, energy, and urban culture-building. We also appreciate the history of graffiti and hip hop culture and recognize it as a valid form of self-expression.

It was unprofessional and irresponsible of the City of Portland to host this event without verifying whether or not its content was accurate. Toscan’s “wild guess” statistics are now being repeated in news articles, including one by Don MacGillivray recently published in the SE Examiner. If the Summit is going to host presentations by academics, they should at least be presenting legitimate statistics.

Commendably, this year’s Summit presented a few alternatives to simply criminalizing graffiti artists, such as the RestART program. However, we are disheartened to hear that Portland’s Graffiti Abatement Program is not using their funding to re-instate the mural-assistance program that was cut a few years ago.

We encourage everyone to contact their neighborhood and City representatives, and share your thoughts. We’ve been told the commissioners and neighborhood association presidents are good people to start with. Leaving your mark in public can have an effect, but speaking directly to those in power can have quite an impact too.


On Easter Sunday, April 20th 2014, Portland-based artist Klutch buffed a section of his 130 foot mural in the Pearl District after WhiskeyfestNW placed a huge banner billboard directly over the in-progress artwork. Klutch has been painting this massive mural for about a month now, after raising money to support it via a Kickstarter campaign. This mural had been very well-received by the neighborhood, one that is arguably lacking street art. Everyday Klutch was out there painting, countless community members and spectators came to watch this ever-evolving process unfold.

Details of the events that transpired over the past few days can be read in the recent Willamette Week article and at this blog, compiled by an upset community member.

In response, Klutch released this statement to PSAA this morning:

“I would really like to just squash this entire debacle but understand from my previous career as a street fighter that when you start a fight sometimes you have to finish it. Everyone wants this to be a story about evil developers stifling an artist’s voice but that is not the case here. Hoyt has been very generous by allowing me to use the space and are without blame in this. I would have never had this wall to paint without their support of this project. The real story is that I am every bit the crazy artist with some long standing mental health issues and I used this mural as my refuge from them. Murals are my own form of meditation and more so than my meds or years of therapy painting them is about the only thing that calms my mind. It’s so important to my state of wellbeing that I will go hungry to buy a couple more cans of paint to keep going another day. When I arrived on Sunday morning I was feeling particularly depressed and just wanted to try and finish the mural before the rain set in this week. Every time I approached the mural I was always prepared to have to cover tags or defacement and was always amazed when I didn’t. What I found was far worse. To call that thing that is now attached a banner is being far too kind. That monstrosity is a billboard and it’s overzealous Nascar-like branding is repulsive to almost everyone who sees it. In all fairness WhiskeyfestNW have leased the lot from Hoyt for their event, so it is essentially theirs right now. They are rent-payers and I am just some artist mooching the space. However there are so many superior ways in we could have existed in harmony had they simply made the effort. They state that they spoke with me last week – which is completely untrue. But this seems to be the way in which WhiskeyfestNW is marketing itself as a whole. It seems jock-like and better suited for a large Midwestern redneck town, instead of Portland. Why couldn’t the billboard be placed on top of, or in front the mural instead of screwed into it? Why is it necessary to have enormous billboards and people in vans with loudspeakers yelling at people to sell whiskey? Selling whiskey is like selling drugs, no advertising is needed. I haven’t taken complete ownership and responsibility for my role in this. A crazy artist was triggered when he found a billboard screwed to mural he self-funded via Kickstarter and worked on for well over a hundred hours, so he destroyed his own work. That doesn’t seem like something that unusual or newsworthy to me. But why they need to ram WhiskeyfestNW down our throats does seem like a question worth asking.”

Regardless of the circumstances and motives by either party, this case shows how art and advertisements impact our everyday lives. When marketing and profit trump artistic creativity and community engagement,  Portland reacts. The amount of community outcry spurred by this unfortunate situation is striking. If allowed, the public spaces of our city have great potential for being shared social spaces, even desolate parking lots in the Pearl. As cultural geographer Don Mitchell noted, public space is a city‘s barometer of justice and wellbeing, and its quality, and how it is used, speaks volumes about what a community believes to be important.

All photos ©  Klutch


On Monday August 12, 2013 the City of Portland was about to have a new and exciting addition to its public art collection. Cannon Dill, a highly regarded artist from San Francisco was visiting Portland. He is known for incredibly detailed black and white aerosol murals of enchanting wolf-like creatures and his murals can be seen in cities across the country, including Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Oakland, Brooklyn, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and New Orleans. His artwork is usually welcomed and celebrated as invigorating dull walls and dilapidated urban environments. However, to our dismay, it was met with contempt in Portland.

About a quarter of the way through painting a self-funded mural on the side of a chronically tagged building in inner Southeast Portland (SE 9th and Ash) Dill was interrupted by two Portland Police officers.

The building owner, who arrived at the scene shortly after, immediately expressed their satisfaction with the progress and told the officers that they had given Dill permission to paint the mural.  The owner explained that they were trying to deter repeat graffiti tagging. Over the years, they have spent a lot of money (city fines and supplies) and time painting over unwanted markings. Art murals are a proven way of reducing tagging and increasing the economic and cultural vitality of a neighborhood.

After realizing that Dill’s mural was not un-authorized ‘graffiti’ and was instead an owner-authorized mural, the Portland Police officers seemed to be appeased. At that point, in most cities, the situation would have been over and the artist would have been allowed to continue. But in Portland, painting a mural is not that easy.

Shortly after, officer Anthony Zanetti, one of the Portland Police Department’s two Graffiti Abatement Task Force officers arrived at the scene. Officer Zanetti said that due to the lack of proper permitting the mural had to be removed immediately or the building owner would be issued a City citation and fined as being a Graffiti Nuisance Property. In Portland, both private and business property owners can be fined (up to $250 per incident of graffiti) and even jailed if there’s graffiti on their property for more than 10 days after they are issued a citation. This can be quite a burden on small businesses and residents.

Zanetti continued to explain to the owner, that his permission did not matter; they still needed a $250 permit from the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC).

While it’s true that the property owner’s permission does not matter in the eyes of the City of Portland when it comes to painting art on the outside of buildings, other things officer Zanetti is reported to have said are not accurate.

Going through RACC is not the only way to paint a mural in Portland. The City has an Original Art Mural Permitting Program, which in most cases, costs only $50. RACC does provide mural artists exceptions to the city sign codes (providing an easement and adding the mural to the city’s public art collection), but that process is free, and if approved, RACC will actually match an artist’s mural funding up to $10,000.

Why did officer Zanetti give the owner inaccurate information? At minimum, we should hold those accountable whose job it is to abate graffiti and and enforce mural regulations to know and provide the public factual information about these rules and processes.

This is also surprising because the City’s new Graffiti Abatement Program Coordinator, Dennis LoGiudice, recently said that he was not going to make regulating non-permitted community murals a priority in his office, which works in partnership with the two Graffiti Task Force police officers.

Zanetti also told the owner that those who do graffiti hide their ‘crew signs’ in their pieces. At the 2013 Graffiti Abatement Summit this past May, Officer Matt Miller (the other Portland Graffiti Abatement officer) said he and his partner focus their efforts on ‘gang’ graffiti. They estimate that 13-15% of reported cases in the city are ‘gang-related’ (a number we haven’t seen updated by the task force since 2006). However, this estimate is biased and unreliable because it is not systematic and only includes reported cases (and not all cases). It’s also a relatively small proportion compared to other cities. A good amount of Portland’s actual gang graffiti is on the edges of the city, not in the inner-city.

Cannon Dill’s artwork is not ‘gang’ related. He is an artist who mainly paints permission murals and shows his work in galleries. It’s a stereotype that all young people who put their work in the streets (especially those who use aerosol paint and are ethnic minorities) are members of gangs or crews. The main function of these ‘crews’ Zanetti is referring to is to network, share information, organize street art-related events, and paint large murals in cities. All of these tasks take organization and management. Associating artists with criminal gangs (or crews) is often used a fear tactic by authorities to demonize artists and justify more graffiti abatement (in the form of graffiti nuisance property, criminal mischief, vandalism, and trespassing fines). This is a self-reinforcing cycle, the more graffiti ‘problems,’ the more job security for graffiti abatement officials.

One of the main purposes of police officers, in general, is to enforce property laws meant to control access and conduct in public space (or spaces viewed from public space). As soon as you put art in this realm, it is regulated and controlled for us, and not by us.

The fact that the City of Portland requires mural permits is often unknown to visiting artists because in most cities (Seattle and San Francisco for example) there are no permits required for murals and all you need is owner-permission. Neither Cannon Dill, nor the property owner, knew that a mural permit was required. Also, visiting artists often are not able to navigate these permitting processes because it can take anywhere from one to three months to complete and requires someone being physically present to organize and attend neighborhood meetings and post proposed mural site notices.

The situation on Monday afternoon concluded with Dill being forced to buff his mural with white paint. Dill was then told by police to get out of town.

This incident is yet another example of the current problem Portland faces with creating art in public spaces. We’re missing out on showcasing local and visiting artists’ work in our city.

Less than a week after the in-progress mural was forcably buffed, Cannon Dill's only other existing mural in Portland was buffed. The wall and surrounding area along MLK Blvd has had street art and graffiti on it for many months (if not years), with no action from graffiti abatement. This mural was the only piece buffed. It survived for only one week. This was not random buffing, it was a targeted effort to remove all traces of Cannon Dill’s art from the Portland landscape. While we understand that this was in some ways inevitable, since a city mural permit was not attained, we rarely see this type of stealth, targeted abatement.  

These incidents are not the first time the Portland’s Graffiti Abatement officers have shut down grassroots efforts to beautify the city with murals. They have targeted numerous galleries, community groups, and other mural efforts over the years (i.e., the Special Delivery Gallery show in 2011 and the Samo Lives Gallery in 2012). These situations portray Portland as being an unwelcoming city for public creativity; something other cities are fully embracing.

It seems that many of these threats and shutdowns are also solely aimed at artists working with aerosol paint. For many artists, aerosol is not just a cheaper and easier way to paint large works, it provides a certain aesthetic quality that other mediums cannot replicate.

Even more concerning is that our access to public space in Portland is under siege. Countless barriers are in place that makes it difficult for people to navigate and receive proper permission to paint a mural or otherwise improve our shared public spaces. By systematically denying the city’s diverse artistic possibilities, authorities are increasingly working to encode privilege and exclusion in our public spaces by setting up legal and environmental barriers that make these spaces off-limits to us. If we’re not careful, Portland will turn into a ‘Disneyfied’ version of its former weird and quirky self.

While community art is closely monitored and regulated, countless un-permitted corporate advertising signage across the city is unregulated – something the city could profit from if proper resources were dedicated to corporate signage enforcement.

In difficult financial times, when city budgets and important social programs are being slashed, why does the City continue to use public resources and tax monies on an aggressive graffiti abatement task force that pursues, intimidates, and prosecutes street artists instead of violent criminals?

All Photos © PSAA


By Kohel Haver

A painting on a wall is different only in size and accessibility to the public from those on canvas or paper. Real artists paint on buildings and cars and busses. The fundamental legal issues facing mural and street artists are relatively straightforward. Most of us are aware that painting on a building or other public property can lead to civil and criminal liability. Less often considered are the interesting and nuanced legal issues concerning copyright and ownership of the work itself. How the work got on the wall does not alter the legitimacy of the expression, the work can even be vandalism and also protected by copyright. Although communities vary in artistic preferences, especially in their regulation of public art, the expressive and aesthetic value of art is separate from its status in that regulatory process. The fact remains that even “street art” is real and as advocates for arts and artists it is something we should come to terms with. In fact many cities and businesses in America (NIKE, Vans, Levi’s, and Frito Lay) have embraced this work both to advocate the legitimacy of street art, and to utilize this young urban medium for commercial purposes. Street artist Shepard Fairey helped define the brand of the last presidential election, inviting hordes of young people into the political process. Shepard Fairey is an ambassador.

Especially relevant to the public artists are the rights regarding the attribution and integrity of the work, which is part of the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act that became part of copyright law. VARA applies to the work of artists who paint on building walls. Important rights also control secondary uses of the art such as the making of copies, t-shirts, postcards, posters, and other commercial goods.

How Copyright law applies to Murals

Copyright law is grounded in our constitution to ensure a continuing incentive for creativity. Copyright protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” This means the author of an original work in a tangible medium of expression owns the copyright in that work from the moment of creation: the copyright springs into existence as soon as the pen leaves the paper (starting with the cartoon), or the paint hits the wall. The law applies to the work of Shepard Fairey, Jeff Koons, KAWS, Joe Cotter, Larry Kangas, and Robin Corbo the same as it applies to any other artist.

The rights of muralists under Copyright law

Once an image is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression,” the creator of the work enjoys the exclusive right to make and distribute copies, to display the work publicly, and to make derivative works (subsequent copyrightable creations based on the original work). Through stencils, sketches, and the final image, the muralist fixes this creative expression “in a tangible medium;” thus, earning the protections afforded by copyright law.

While the rights to the work itself pass to the owner of the wall by nature of the wall; ownership of the copyright stays with the author. Under copyright law, the artist is the sole holder of the copyright to his creations; however, if a piece is painted onto a building owned by another, the building owner is the rightful holder of that particular “copy” of the work. Lawyers can split this hair separating the copyright in the art from the rights in the work therefore; the building owner could cut out the wall on which the art was placed and sell or lend it.

A building owner cannot, however, begin making t-shirts, mugs or advertising with the design because doing so would constitute the creation of unlawful derivative works or copies--the building owner is no longer using the wall, but instead, is using the art itself. Similarly, a photographer could not legally photograph the wall and then proceed to sell or license the copies. Capturing the painting in photographs is a copy or derivative. It would be a derivative work to use the patterns in the artwork to make fabric designs, packaging, or as promotions for film or video projects. Most major film and video productions obtain clearances for murals appearing in background shots. The art is a valuable tool to establish the "look and feel" of a location.

The ownership of the rights can change if the artist gives the rights to someone by signing a “work for hire” agreement which has the effect to transfer the ownership of the rights in the work. That agreement must clearly state that the work will be considered a “work for hire.” There are good reasons why a street artist may not want to demand credit for his work nor trouble himself with copyright and compensation. If we are talking about graffiti, making such a demand could expose the artist to civil and criminal liability for vandalism, trespassing, and a host of other potential violations. These uncredited artists miss out on some copyright protections recognitions and royalties in their copyrights and devalue their otherwise legitimate work.

The artists can also give up the rights in the artwork with a license, transfer or assignment of the rights in the work. The artist can give up some or all of the rights, its up to the seller and buyer.

The Duration of Copyrights

For works created on or after January 1, 1978, when an artist creates a work under a pseudonym (for example, calling oneself “KAWS” instead of signing with one’s actual name) or creates a work anonymously, the copyrights in that work only lasts for the lesser of 95 years from first publication or 120 years from the year of its creation. However, if an artist’s identity is revealed in the registration records of the Copyright Office (including in any other registrations made prior to the expiration of the copyright term), then the term will last for either (a) the life of the author plus 70 years; or (b) in the case of a work made by more than one person, for the life of the last surviving author plus 70 years. These nuances often mean that an unattributed work fades into the public domain much sooner than an attributed work.

The Visual Artist’s Right of Attribution and Integrity

We know that a building owner can sell the building or the wall itself but cannot make t-shirts of the art. Another question is whether a building owner may paint over a given work of art. The standard provisions of copyright law only prevent people from violating the copyright holder’s exclusive rights which include distribution, making copies, and selling or licensing derivatives. The artist and copyright holder would typically be powerless to stop the destruction of the work except for VARA which might add additional rights. If the work is of “recognized stature” the artist may be able to prevent its destruction by exercising his moral rights under the Visual Artist’s Right of Attribution and Integrity (“VARA”).

VARA was enacted in 1990 as an amendment to the Copyright Act, to provide for the protection of the so-called “moral rights” of certain artists. “[M]oral rights afford protection for the author’s personal, non-economic interests in receiving attribution for her work, and in preserving the work in the form in which it was created, even after its sale or licensing.” VARA provides that the author of a “work of visual art,” “shall have the right,” for life,

(A) to prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation, and any intentional distortion, mutilation, or modification of that work is a violation of that right, and

(B) to prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work is a violation of that right.

How VARA applies to a mural including street art

Upon passing VARA in 1990, Congress instructed courts to use common sense and generally accepted standards of the artistic community in determining whether a particular work falls within the scope of the definition of a “work of visual art”, and explicitly stated that “whether a particular work falls within the definition should not depend on the medium or materials used.” Protection of a work under VARA can depend upon the work’s objective and evident purpose.

VARA protects only things defined as “work[s] of visual art.” There is no clear bright line standard for where this applies. The congressional debate “revealed a consensus that the bill’s scope should be limited to certain carefully defined types of works and artists, and that if claims arising in other contexts are to be considered, they must be considered separately” (Thus the “legislation covers only a very select group of artists”). VARA does not protect advertising, promotional, or utilitarian works, and does not protect “works for hire”, regardless of their artistic merit, their medium, or their value to the artist or the market.

As the quoted text reflects, VARA confers rights only on artists who have produced works of “recognized stature,” or whose “honor or reputation” is such that it would be prejudiced by the modification of a work. To determine whether a work is of “recognized stature,” courts typically apply a two-part test: (1) the work is viewed as meritorious and (2) this stature is recognized by art experts, other members of the artistic community, or some other cross-section of society. To satisfy this test, the artist will probably have to rely on expert witnesses; however, a long-existing work with some importance to the community should be sufficient. For the purposes of this determination, “recognized stature” can be either recognition of the work itself, or of the artist.

The rights of muralists under VARA

VARA grants artists a type of “moral rights.” For example, from the Büchel (Mass MoCA) case, part of the law provides that the author of a “visual work” has the right to prevent the use of his or her name as the author of the work of visual art in the event of a distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation.

Under VARA, authors of qualifying works have the right to prevent its destruction. Destruction of such works can lead to substantial liability. In 2008, Kent Twitchell (an American muralist) settled a case under VARA and California’s Art Preservation Act (CAPA), in which he was awarded approximately $1,100,000 for the destruction (painting over) of his 70-foot-tall landmark mural of the iconic L.A. artist Ed Ruscha.

However, even if all the VARA elements are met, courts may still deny relief to artists who have illegally placed their works on property. This was the case when artists illegally placed artwork in a community owned garden on city property. When the interior construction by the artists was identified as a “work for hire” so the artists did not own the copyright (Carter v. Helmsley-Spear). It was also the case with a temporary mural (Pollara case) attached to a chain link fence in Albany New York, regardless of the artists reputation and quality of the work, political appropriateness, or value of the message. But it was not the case when the artist and museum disputed whether the work was “finished” and if it could to be publically shown (Büchel).

Unpermitted work in violation of the law

Under VARA, artists who illegally paint the property of another are probably without a means of stopping the destruction, removal, or transfer of that particular manifestation. As a result public pressure rather than copyright law is probably the best means of protecting such work—if the work is truly special, of recognized stature, or widely appreciated by members of the community, then coordinated action from local citizens may be the only way to save it regardless of artistic merit. While there is a growing recognition of street art, illegally placed artwork is subject to the wishes of the landowner. Whether you agree or not, the legal reality balances the value of art against the value of property rights, and the result is unsurprising. Although it makes sense from a policy perspective, it has also led to the destruction of many important works of art. Copyright law applies to all artwork, legal or otherwise. “Legal” work can have the additional protection of VARA which might prevent certain important works from being lost, or altered, or even exploited improperly. Conversely, artists of commissioned work may be entitled to VARA protections even absent their ownership of the copyright.


Copyright grants artists the right and ability to control the copying and distribution of their work. Murals painted with the approval or the property owner will enjoy this protection under VARA if it meets the necessary subjective conditions. If it’s protected under VARA and if the artist or their agent is attentive, if there is an attempt to alter or deface the work the artists has rights that can stop the artwork from being changed or even repaired without permission. But the artist must assert that right. The artist should be able to assign that right to someone, or an agency, to protect the work like the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. That solution hasn’t been tested in the courts, but certainly has been suggested in the cases.

With regard to unpermitted works, the rubbing out, painting-over and alteration by other artists, and the constant changing urban landscape drives street art forward. While such art can be commoditized, it is inherently impermanent. Perhaps today’s mural and street artists owe thanks to the public reaction and the laws that constrain the medium because they force it to evolve.

Read more about VARA rights in this article.


By Burnside Arts Trust

On Easter Sunday, a small group representing the Burnside Arts Trust attempted to give the City of Portland something it sorely needs more of – public art. The long boring stretch of boarded-up grey windows of the historic R.J. Templeton Building on the Burnside Bridge has been a magnet for graffiti and other vandalism for years. Like many other derelict buildings in the city, the Templeton Building attracts urban artists, and later, graffiti abatement crews.

This was the chosen location for the Burnside Arts Trust's latest public art project in Portland. The Burnside Arts Trust hoped to give the city a large public mural that would reduce graffiti vandalism on the Templeton Building and shine light on the uplifting and positive effects that public art has on the surrounding community. This was a lost chance to celebrate Portland's weirdness and its thriving arts culture.

Unfortunately, the mural, which took hours to create, was painted over with grey paint the very next day. Just hours after being buffed, graffiti tags already began reappearing. These, too, will soon be buffed in an endless cycle of creative destruction.

Portland has a long and tumultuous mural arts history. In 1997, 2003, and 2006 the City was sued by Clear Channel, the multi-media conglomerate. Clear Channel demanded that Portland murals be regulated under the same codes that their advertisement billboards were. Even though community activists fought and lessened the burden, these regulations still create a complex code of red tape and barriers for artists who are attempting to paint in Portland. The process also requires applicants to pay the city a permitting fee, something many freelance artists cannot afford. Instead of revisiting the mural code as promised many years ago when it was finalized, the City has chosen to instead focus its efforts on enforcing a zero-tolerance graffiti abatement program. Just one of the many examples of how the graffiti abatement program handles the issue of community art occurred in the summer of 2011 when two public murals in Portland were classified as ‘graffiti,’ even though they were endorsed by the building and business owners and neighboring residents. One of the murals painted over by graffiti abatement was by prolific artist Jules Muck.

The speed in which the Burnside Arts Trust mural was removed, shows that the City of Portland is only willing to celebrate or advance the arts in a very controlled and regulated way. By doing this, the City places a very arbitrary and subjective definition on what constitutes as ‘art’ and ‘graffiti,’ making it clear that citizens do not have a voice when it comes to what they want the spaces around them to look like. These heavy-handed measures also restrict emerging artists, who do not have money or access to a gallery, from sharing their art with the city. The Burnside Arts Trust hopes that this mural project, and the story of its demise, will prompt city officials to reconsider these restrictive public art laws that control our shared creative spaces. If we want to ‘Keep Portland Weird’ and ensure it is seen as a creative capital of the Pacific Northwest, the City must start tolerating more artistic interventions in public space and allow its citizens to enjoy what countless other cities long have, a thriving public art scene.



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.