Earlier this month, the Portland City Council voted on some of its priorities for the year, including the plan to deploy more contracted cleaners as a part of its Graffiti Program. In the next few weeks, “Think Out Loud” will host a series of conversations about graffiti in Portland. We start with Bridgid Blackburn, the co-owner of the home goods store Cargo. She says that she has seen an increase in unpermitted street art over the past 10 years in the Central Eastside. Because of the frequency of tagging she sees on her building, the hefty price tag that comes with a professional cleaner and the less than ideal timeline for a response from the city, she takes it upon herself to paint over any unwanted street art once a week. Blackburn joins us to share what she’s been seeing and what she hopes the city will do in the future.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Earlier this month, the Portland City Council approved a so-called action plan for the next 90 days. It’s a non-binding resolution, but it provides a public road map for what city leaders say they will focus on. It includes a plan to deploy more contracted cleaners as part of the city’s graffiti removal program as well as an effort to prevent graffiti in the first place. We’re gonna have a series of conversations about graffiti in Portland in the coming weeks. We start today with a business owner. Bridgid Blackburn is the co-owner of the home goods store, Cargo, in Portland’s Central Eastside. Welcome to the show.
Bridgid Blackburn: Thanks, Happy to be here.
Miller: How often is your business tagged?
Blackburn: We have the distinction of being located right on the railroad tracks, on Yamhill Street in the Central Eastside. And the railroad tracks are a favorite area for taggers. So we have a habit of, every Tuesday, going out and painting out tags. So I would say constantly.
Miller: And every week when you do it there is something to paint over?
Blackburn: Yes, it’ll vary from the micro tagging with pens and things to large spray outs sometimes over windows or on planters. But yes, every week there’s absolutely something to paint out.
Miller: What kinds of tags do you see most often?
Blackburn: Well there’s all kinds of reasons that this is happening and that people are tagging. So most often we see the folks who are coming through to see their name or their tag up again and again and again in as many places as possible. So we have come to know some of those names, those monikers and we will see them not in one location but throughout the district. Because the goal seems to be to get up in as many places as possible.
Miller: You’re also not far from the I-5 overpass. You mentioned the railroad tracks. I mean, so in your mind, part of this just has to do with the particular location where your business is?
Blackburn: Yeah, I would say so. And I also think we’re, historically, an industrial district. So we’ve got a lot of large walls and a lot of walls that are desirable to tag on because they’re flat and they’re tall and they’re accessible from, like you say, the bridge overpasses or by the freeway overpasses, And that makes them particularly attractive. And then historically speaking, the district was kind of a Monday through Friday 9-5 business hours. So it was very accessible to folks to do work in those off hours as well.
Miller: You’ve been at your location for about 10 years. Have you seen the amount of graffiti change over that time?
Blackburn: Yes, absolutely. Graffiti handles a lot of different types of categories. People do it for a lot of different reasons. But especially since the pandemic and lack of enforcement from the City, we’ve seen the tags get larger, higher and get into more difficult areas to paint out. And then more recently, we’ve had a terrible rash of what can only be described as property damage because it’s over storefront windows on planters and porous surfaces, things that are hard to paint out or to treat. And they’re definitely meant just as property damage. They’re not artistic. So it’s changed in that sense certainly.
There’s another sort of thing that happens and that is someone who’s taking time to do a multicolored thing that looks much more like street art and much less like property damage. That style, I would say, has not accelerated as heavily as the property damage style of tagging.
Miller: Do you ever think instead of going through this cycle week after week, I’m just going to leave this tag up?
Blackburn: Well, yes and no. I certainly have neighbors who do that and I find that it just adds to it. The tags will come over each other, they’ll spread larger and larger, they’ll spread onto unaccompanied buildings. I actually find that the best mitigation is to get it painted out or dealt with as soon as possible. But you get to an interesting point Dave, because I think that the redundancy and the waste of time and resources is frustrating. And I would very much like to see a different conversation that might open up that would address perhaps a free wall space or something that would give a sanctioned place for tagging to happen and a return to respect for individual properties that are simply trying to keep their doors open and trying to keep their storefronts attractive to the visitors.
Miller: Do you think that would work? And I know you’re not the one who’s doing this tagging. So you might not be the perfect person to ask since you’re not, I think, going out with a spray can at three in the morning on some Sunday night. But if a free wall were offered, do you think that would provide the same thrill to people if it were sanctioned?
Blackburn: You know, that’s a great question and I don’t think we know without opening the conversations to the entire community. And I know that’s a big ask because it would be an unusual space in which we could sit down together with business owners and artists and taggers and talk about what the goals are and what would be satisfactory for everyone involved. Maybe I’m a child of the 60s and I have kind of a utopian view of what the world might be. But I do think it’s worth trying. And I’m very hopeful that the idea of what the city has been doing lately with the new Office of Public Environmental Management might actually take a look at some out-of-the-box thinking and come up with new solutions. Because clearly going back over this and painting it beige and having it tagged again and painting it beige again is a no-win situation for everyone involved.
Miller: What does go through your mind on a Tuesday morning because those are the days, I guess, as you said, you’ve set aside for painting over graffiti. What goes through your mind when you start that process for any given week?
Blackburn: Well, it depends on how bad the situation is. Sometimes I’m not as bothered as other times. But I do think about the waste and the redundancy and I’m inherently a problem solver. So I do try to get into my mind about what would be the solution that happens that could solve this. And I do see some success in some of those areas in other cities. I think the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia is a good example of something that we could study as a city and try to replicate.
I do also think that the incredible work that Portland’s Street Art Alliance is doing to form a space where street artists and trained muralists are collaborating to create murals for buildings that offer a solution to folks like me who are struggling with this problem. I mean I do think that there has to be a solution that regains mutual respect. And I’d like to respect both the folks who are trying to hone their skills and become better at their street art and I’d like them to respect my business. So I spent a lot of time trying to get into an even mind frame while I’m also repeatedly every week cleaning up the tagging.
Miller: And you’re doing that repainting yourself as opposed to hiring a professional cleaner?
Blackburn: Well, no, I have to shout out to my husband, Dave. He joins me most Tuesdays. But on occasion we will hire out or we will turn to the city for help with our problems generally when they’re beyond us, when they’re too large. I recently had a situation where the entire face was tagged by four different taggers at the same time. And they hit our planters that are very porous, so they need to be power washed as opposed to painted and it was beyond our ability. So we did call out to the city. They sent out GRS, their contractor, who did a remarkable job in no time flat.
Miller: No time flat, meaning . . . because I’ve heard conflicting things about how long that can take. But for you, you were happy with the speed at which they responded?
Blackburn: In this case yes. And it does have, in part, to do with the fact that the Central Eastside is under this 90 day reset and we’re being prioritized for our graffiti removal at this moment. In past times it has not been as speedy. And over the years, the graffiti response from the city has been much, much slower than it has been in recent times.
Miller: I noted in my intro that one of the priorities of the city council, according to the resolution they just passed, is to prevent future graffiti through targeted prevention. I’m curious what that means to you?
Blackburn: Well, that means a couple of different things to me. We were having some problems on our upper walls because folks were able to scale our neighboring businesses’ lower walls and get onto their roof and tag our upper wall. So in that case, it might mean to me, taking a look at how folks are getting onto that lower roof line in order to do this and perhaps doing something physical to the space that makes that accessibility, no longer viable. But one of the things folks like to do is to get up high and dangerous areas, so it’s real difficult to handle that in every case.
I would also hope that they would think about expanding the idea of green solutions. So encouraging buildings that do have chronic problems to take a look at doing some fast growing green material, that’s noninvasive, ivy and other things on their walls so that they’re simply no longer available as a surface to tag on. My hope is really to get some out-of-the-box thinking about how it can be handled in all these different ways. And I think the PEMO office is hopeful that it stood up and is looking at some of those solutions.
Miller: Bridgid Blackburn thanks very much.
Blackburn: Thank you so much. I appreciate the time.
Miller: Bridgid Blackburn is a co-owner of the home goods store Cargo, which is in Portland’s Central Eastside. She joined us to talk about graffiti in Portland. We hope to talk with advocates and artists and the city in the coming weeks.
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