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Graffiti: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Street art abounds on the city's walls – sometimes sanctioned, sometimes not. Is it time for Portland to join the "Free Walls" movement?


Driving through Portland, I often pull over to look at street art, much of which strikes me as powerful creative expression or potent social commentary—or both. Even when it is clearly a trespass, it often has a realness, an unfiltered energy and impact, that no gallery art can equal.
More than most of us appreciate, much of what we see on Portland’s buildings is not only permitted by the property owner but is supported by a local nonprofit, Portland Street Art Alliance (PSAA). The image above by the artist Voxx Romana and the image below (artist unknown) are stunning examples on the former Gordon’s Fireplace Shop on Northeast Broadway.

But on the same building’s east wall, random chaos takes over, compelling in its own way, like a pile of unsorted beginnings. . .yet signaling neglect, decay, and aggression:

How do we sort this out? We are not dealing with just one thing and, frustratingly, the distinctions are fuzzy. Is it wall art, graffiti, or gang tagging?  Since the terminology is so fluid, when I write “graffiti” in this post I use it as a broad generic term, irrespective of consent, surface, legality, or artistic quality.
Let’s start by recognizing that graffiti—unlike broken windows—often makes our city more vibrant and stimulating. And that even illegal graffiti can rise to art, a gift to us by talented individuals who may have no other outlet for their creative drive. The Lovejoy Columns serve as an example. Now preserved in their new home in the Pearl District, they were painted on the pillars of the Lovejoy Ramp between 1948 and 1952 by Greek immigrant Athanasios “Tom” Stefopoulos. When the original ramp was demolished in 1999, admirers organized to save the columns and move them to where they could be appreciated as part of Portland’s public art legacy.

This and many other examples defy the trope that graffiti is inevitably a blight, yet—irrespective of its artistic quality—graffiti is often an act of vandalism and a violation of the rights of property owners who are burdened with the expense of removing the trespass. Graffiti without consent violates the basic principle of the social compact that we respect the rights of others—including their property rights.
Yet we would be poorer without some of it . . . even when it’s on a passing freight train:

I wonder: Can we make room for the creative impulses that motivate graffiti while respecting the rights of others? And can we preserve the public’s interest in being stimulated by art and visual commentary that is democratically offered in open public spaces and not sequestered in galleries or museums or filtered by curators, bureaucrats, or committees?

Exploring those questions led me to discover that the Portland Street Art Alliance and Portland State University’s Toulan School of Urban Studies & Planning are a step ahead of me. They have already proposed to the Portland City Council the ingenious concept of “Free Walls,” walls that are:

[O]pen to the public for artistic expression [and] often quickly covered with new graffiti, which showcases frequently updated content.

Think about it. The city could make room for “public artists” to express themselves by dedicating certain surfaces for ephemeral creativity. Not just for static, “civic art,” but for art of vibrant anarchy. Perhaps the city can rent some of the many bare walls that face parking lots, creating a place for graphic expression and dialogue in full view of the public. Elsewhere called “rotating art walls” and “community chalkboards,” other communities are ahead of us, and the PSAA has already helped organize a more controlled model at the Taylor Electric Project, where over 100 artists share the rotating opportunity to enliven the structure.

What could be more Portland than gathering on a summer evening to enjoy a joint or a brew, along with a taco from a nearby food cart, while watching artists at work during Weekly Graffiti Night?


This essay was first published by Portland artist David Slader as part of his most recent art letter to subscribers, and is republished here with permission. In the full letter, which you can see via the link, he also discusses the work of the late British-Portuguese artist Paula Rego, the tension between abstraction and representation, and his work in the August show “Gray Scale” at Portland’s Black Box Gallery.

David Slader is an Oregon painter, digital artist, sculptor, and photographer. His youthful art ambitions were detoured by an almost forty-year career as a litigator, child-advocate, and attorney for survivors of sexual abuse. Although a Portland resident, David's studio is in the Coast Range foothills, along an oxbow of the Upper Nehalem River, where he alternates making art with efforts to reforest his land. In the Fall, a run of Chinook salmon spawn outside his studio door.


One Response

  1. the aspect of graffiti that aggravates me (actually, it pisses me off) is that which covers and disrespects a beautiful piece of wall art. There used to be a graffiti understanding that you didn’t destroy something “tagged” by someone else – but maybe that only applied to gang art, because there could be repercussions!
    I do love the murals that have exploded along most Pdx arterials.
    Looking foward to a “free walls” adoption.

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