Painting or just paint? Portland continues its graffiti debate

Some defend it as street art, but there's still plenty of resistance to tagging, even in funky Portland, where painters and businesses have an occasion to face off.
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Dangerous to some, art to others. (City of Portland)

Some defend it as street art, but there's still plenty of resistance to tagging, even in funky Portland, where painters and businesses have an occasion to face off.

Like purveyors of coffee, the people who bring graffiti to us don't think we should have to roam more than, oh, 100 yards or so without the next fix. And once there are national Web sites tracking an activity, you know franchising can't be far behind.

Portland and surrounding cities started taking graffiti seriously practically before the first round of paint was dry. Web sites like one maintained by the Hillsboro County Sheriff's Department began warning of graffiti's dangers years ago, taking a point of view that is now conventional wisdom:

Graffiti, whether "gang-related" or "generic," has a negative effect on a resident's feeling of safety in their neighborhood. It creates a perception (whether factual or not) that crime is on the rise and gangs are moving into the area. When graffiti appears and is left up indefinitely, it sends a signal that people just don't care, which in turn attracts other forms of crime and delinquency to the neighborhood.

Whether unhappy taggee or proud tagger, you'd have to agree that Portland's Office of Neighborhood Involvement Programs and Services has one of the most comprehensive sites imaginable devoted to graffiti. (Reading the PDF file [128K] titled "How to Read Graffiti" feels like calling that 800 number to get answers to The New York Times crossword. Cheating, yes – but you feel smarter afterward.) Not to be outdone, the City of Seattle has a lot of advice scattered all over its Web site.

Not surprisingly, Portland is also in the forefront of the graffiti-as-art school. Efforts to tag all of it (sorry) as gang activity and therefore dangerous are often met with derision by bloggers, as was the case with responses to a Willamette Week story published earlier this year about city efforts to rub out the stuff. Nor are all the graffiti-admirers in the demographic one might imagine. One blogger wrote:

I love graffiti art. I'm a middle class 45+ year old mom. Anyway who thinks that graffiti is not a legitimate expression of art doesn't understand the history of art or its purpose. I love being able to recognize the work of different artists as I drive around town, variations on a particular moniker.

The latest news on the subject has surfaced over a "paint off" next Saturday, Oct. 13, by local graffiti artists. The event is sponsored by Art Media, a popular Portland-area retailer of art supplies According to the Portland Mercury's Blogtown PDX, some downtown business folks are ready to rumble over the event.

Mercury writer Matt Davis, frequently the only member of the local press attending biz-gov meetings about downtown issues, reports that members of the Portland Business Alliance have suggested a sit-down with Art Media to talk about the possible downside of hosting such an event.

Since one of the only things we like around here more than public art is public process, this is shaping up to be a veritable orgy.


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