Graffiti is not new to Portland. The term can include everything from a simple tag or initials to artistic murals on building walls. Whether it’s words or pictures, graffiti has a documented history in the city that dates back to the late 1940s. As businesses deal with defaced property and unpermitted art, the city is moving on plans to expand deployment of contracted cleaners. But some advocates are looking to a different answer: a free wall. This would be a designated space for artists to gather, create and share ideas. As a part of our series on graffiti, we hear from Tiffany Conklin, the executive director of Portland Street Art Alliance. She joins us to share what a free wall would mean in Portland and the history of street art in the city.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Graffiti is not new to Portland. The term can include everything from a simple tag or initials, to full scale murals on the sides of buildings. As we talked about last week, many business owners are getting frustrated with defaced property and unpermitted art and the city is expanding its program to pay for more professional cleaners. But some advocates are looking to a different answer: Free Walls, designated spaces for artists to gather, create and share ideas. Tiffany Conklin joins us now as part of our series on Graffiti. She is the Executive Director of the Portland Street Art Alliance. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Tiffany Conklin: Thanks Dave, thanks for having me.
Miller: That phrase in the title of your Alliance, “street art”. What does it mean to you? What is “street art”?
Conklin: I would say it’s any creative intervention in public space.
Miller: “Creative intervention” in public space, so, what is included in that umbrella, then?
Conklin: Yeah, so you would consider any sort of spray paint, anything like chalk could be included, wheat paste stickers, yarn bombing. There’s a lot of different types of things that could fall under that umbrella.
Miller: In an essay last year in Oregon ArtsWatch, David Slater wrote this: “Graffiti without consent violates the basic principles of the social compact, that we respect the rights of others, including their property rights. Yet, we would be poorer without some of it.” I’m curious how you think about that tension.
Conklin: Yeah. It’s certainly a good point. And it’s something we grapple with every day, in the work that we do. So we see from a lot of different angles because of all the different communities we have to work with every day. We see the value of having open and accessible public spaces. We think that graffiti is one of the main forms of freedom of speech that we could have in society, and the amount of access we have to public space speaks volumes about what we hold dear and our values as a community. Not everybody can pay for billboards or have access to going to a museum or a gallery space. So graffiti and street art is open and accessible for everybody to see and do.
So there lies the tension, of course, because there’s also the issue that it’s ungovernable which has some of its power but also can frustrate a lot of members of the community, rightfully so. So we consider all different aspects of graffiti and street art, and all of the nuances that it presents to us. We often say that street art is kind of an umbrella term that street art can include a lot of different mediums and forms of public expression. And a lot of times we’ll also use the word “graffiti” as actually a signifier of the style of art. So there’s graffiti style writing, that is text-based art, we tend to separate that from the legal aspect of it. And if it’s illegal tagging, that’s one thing, versus everything else, which would be permission. So we sometimes use the language a little differently than most people would.
Miller: And obviously what we’re talking about here, writing or drawing things on walls is nowhere close to new, it goes back thousands of years. Portland’s history is more recent as an incorporated city, but the history of public art goes back decades here, as well. Can you remind us about the Lovejoy Columns?
Conklin: Yeah. So the Lovejoy Columns are one of my favorite examples of early Portland graffiti. Doing research, it may have been the earliest example that we could find written in the history books. The columns were painted by Tom Stephanopolous in the late 1940s to early 1950s. He was a Greek immigrant and an artist that came here hoping to have a career in art. He was amazing. He had amazing penmanship, but he ended up just being a watchman for the railroad company for many years because he couldn’t make it as an artist back then. So in his idle time at the rail yards, he would stand atop the boxcars and go underneath the Broadway Bridge there, where all the columns were, and he painted all the columns.
The artwork ranged from doves, owls, lions, trees, Greek mythological gods, biblical figures, just various Americana references. So it was completely illegal. He was not getting permission from the city or his company at the time to do that, but somehow it was allowed to remain for decades.
Miller: I mean, it’s like somebody from PBOT [Portland Bureau of Transportation ] or ODOT [Oregon Department of Transportation] or BNSF [Railway], a security guard or somebody who works for these agencies or companies tagging something today. Would it have had the same overlay of irony then, to have somebody who worked for the railroad doing this un-permitted art?
Conklin: I think people from those companies are still probably doing that art.
Miller: You think so?
Conklin: Yeah, so you never know who’s behind…
Miller: They would have access?
Miller: You think, I mean, do you have reason to…
Conklin: No, no… I would always just say that we don’t know who is tagging. People try to stereotype and classify them and it could be anybody, it could be the person sitting next to you in a cubicle, or…
Miller: We don’t know who Banksy is.
Conklin: You don’t know.
Miller: So that was one early example, the Lovejoy Columns. Zooming forward in history to the ‘80s. There was a group called Guerilla Wall Fair, who were they, and what did they do?
Conklin: Yes. It was actually a small group of sign painters. They said what they did was guerilla graffiti, which was a really cute way of saying it. And they started in the early ‘80s and their first mural is actually their only surviving mural now in Portland. They painted a few of them, all illegally, in the middle of the daytime. They would go out with caution vests and just set up all of their painting supplies and go for it.
Miller: So they were public about it.
Conklin: Yes, very public about it. So much so that after they were done painting each mural, they would send a typewritten letter to the City of Portland with a Polaroid picture taped to it announcing that they’ve done this and they’d reclaimed blank walls in the name of art.
Miller: And how many of those are still around? This is many years ago now.
Conklin: Yeah. So they actually painted several of them. But the only one that’s still there is the “Art Fills the Void” mural at 12th and Division.
Miller: In our last conversation about these issues last week, we heard from a business owner who said that she wants among other things, more communication, more understanding between artists and the city. And she also said she wants to see “free walls”, something that other cities around the world, including in the Northwest, have done. What’s the idea behind a “free wall?”
Conklin: Yes. So a “free wall” is just basically a designated space that is open to creative expression. And various examples around the country and world have different programming styles where some of them, you can just go paint anytime. Some of them have open hours, and some of them are more programmed spaces, which we actually have some of those types of projects in Portland that we oversee and that other people oversee. But we do not have an open free wall, where anybody can just go paint, pretty much at any time, which we advocate for.
Miller: Why? What do you think it would provide to the people of Portland?
Conklin: A lot of different things. We really see the need for community building, a space where people can go and have a safe, comfortable space to paint, where they don’t have to be watching their backs, where they can meet other people and other artists, and hopefully get mentorship and different networking opportunities. Portland had a mural moratorium for many years and we had a crackdown that really segmented and fractured the community. And we think that we’ve rebounded back from that a lot, in many ways. You see murals everywhere now and it’s really flourished, but there’s still a lot of criminalization towards tagging.
And we think that instead of criminalizing that community, we should really just try to embrace them and understand that they are part of our community and try to provide them with spaces to practice their craft, just like we provide public parks and football fields and tennis courts for other people and their interests. We don’t see any difference with spray paint and we think that as a form of expression, it’s actually pretty important for society to try to support those types of spaces for people who are interested in it.
Miller: Is there evidence that in places that have free walls, that un-permitted tagging, the kind of expression that can frustrate business owners or residents. Does that go down if there is some kind of permitted outlet?
Conklin: That’s a really great question. It’s probably the top question we get asked when proposing this idea. And the truth is we don’t actually know. We have partnerships at Portland State University and we would love to actually study that question and get some hard data around it. But we have dug into what data exists and what research is out there, and there is not clear information about whether or not that happens or not; you’d have to really design a pretty targeted study to determine that. It might concentrate it a little bit, but by no means, will it stop tagging. I think that’s not really the point completely.
Miller: I’m glad that that’s where you end… because it seems like that’s where you were heading. And I feel like it’s an important point to make because it’s easy, especially since you’re the second person in the series of conversations we want to have, to see a free wall as intended to do that, intended to focus or funnel, sort of a kind of tagging energy into a place where, “Here, you can do it here.” But you’re saying that’s not even the point of a free wall. It’s actually to do different things.
Conklin: Yeah, we see it as an equity and access issue that not everybody has access to a wall to paint. Not everybody feels comfortable going through a process to get a city permit for various reasons. And we have parents come at us, every single week, asking for safe spaces for their children to paint and to express themselves because they see their children are interested in graffiti and they’re nervous about what that could mean, and them getting in trouble for it.
Miller: So what does that look like? You get an email or a call or like, an Instagram message saying, “My kid has spray paint bottles, where, where can they go?”
Conklin: Yeah. Basically usually those inquiries come over email, we get a lot of emails from parents and there’s not very many answers to give them, actually. We send them over to the Regional Arts and Culture Council to see if they have any programs at the time. And we have some partnerships with local artists in town that will provide one on one mentorships, but there’s no real place for them to go. And a free wall would be a perfect space, especially one that might have a little bit of programming around it. Like in Austin, they had the Hope Gallery where you would kind of sign in and register and it was kind of a public park that people could go and paint.
That would be the perfect type of thing for youth that are interested. Maybe their parent can go with them, maybe, if they’re a little bit older, they don’t need a chaperone, but to have a safe space for people to go and experience that community together, collectively, would I think be a positive thing that Portland should at least explore and consider.
Miller: Have you seen any interest on the part of elected leaders or civic organizations or neighborhood organizations to say both, “We want to do this and we have a place that you can use.”
Conklin: That’s a great question. And we actually did a proposal with a group of Portland State University graduate students out of the Urban Studies Program a few years ago back in 2019. And they did a full research study and created a proposal outlining recommendations and best practices for implementing a free wall in Portland. And we went in front of the City Council in August of 2019 to share that research and asked them for some avenue to be paved for us to actually have a free wall. Because right now, legally, it’s not quite possible. There’s no legal way to do that within our current permitting system. So it would kind of require special permission from the Council. And at that time, Mayor Wheeler said he was interested and he would hear us out if we were able to find a suitable space for such a wall.
We’ve had a couple prospects over the years, but nothing that has really panned out because you have to really find a really specific type of space, more industrial, something that’s not gonna cause a nuisance to residential properties, there’s going to be spray paint fumes.
And another important aspect of it is that you need to kind of think about the programming of that space a little bit. You need waste management, some place for people to throw away their cans and their buckets of paint. Some lighting would be great for safety. It should not be anywhere near the railroad tracks or anywhere dangerous. Simple things like that would go a long way. Some posted signage kind of like how Burnside Skatepark has.
And what we’re arguing is that, just create a system that people could apply for a permit to do something like that and make it a pilot program, see how it goes. It’s worth a shot. And yeah, we see examples of free walls all around the world being successful.
Miller: Tiffany Conklin, thanks very much.
Conklin: Thank you, Dave.
Miller: Tiffany Conklin is the Executive Director of the Portland Street Art Alliance.
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