Thursday, March 31, 2011

City walls: A look at Portland's graffiti history

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Back in the early '90s, Eli Cayer had just finished art school in Boston and headed to Maine, where he continued creating street art. In a scene then heavy on "throw-ups," tags with an artist's nickname in stylized letters, Cayer had another approach. "Instead of going to do throw-ups, I'd just do faces."

In the mid- to late '90s, Cayer was a busy, visible street artist in Portland. But one night, he recalls, he was arrested while leaving a nightclub. He spent the night in jail, and was later sentenced to a week behind bars.

The experience set him on a course to create legal opportunities for graffiti artists and other street artists to show off their wares. Promoting work "inspired by the street, inspired by the youth, inspired by emerging cultures," Cayer organized events — including an "Urban Earth Day" celebration — that included spray-painting activities as part of the entertainment. He wanted people to "recognize it as a legitimate art form," he says.

That led to contact with city workers, in both the community-policing and parks-and-recreation departments, which in turn connected him with officials at the Portland Water District's East End Wastewater Treatment Facility. As Cayer described how murals, particularly those influenced by street art, can actually "graffiti-proof" a wall (by showcasing the work of prominent artists younger taggers will be reluctant to paint over), an idea took hold: the outside wall of the sewage plant could be a place for graffiti artists to do their work legally.

The idea was that vandalism would decrease if the city would just "allow the artistic side of it, encourage it even" by providing places for people to practice and engage with street art, Cayer says.

He says that containing or institutionalizing graffiti doesn't necessarily change the nature of the art — and if it does, it does so organically, rather than forcing the change on the artist. "The hard-core writer, even given the opportunity to do a (legal) jam, it's not going to change what he's doing on the street," Cayer says. But others might take an opportunity to expand their expression while also reducing legal risks. "It's almost the . . . equivalent of skateboarding," Cayer explains: "It's not organized, it's totally self-driven, it's what you make of it."

On June 4, 2002 — Cayer recalls the date easily — that section of the wall was unveiled at the same time as a newly opened section of the Eastern Promenade trail. Ever since, that space has been known as the "legal wall," where anyone can go and practice their art. For a time, he also helped coordinate the painting of the Asylum wall every year.

Cayer, who is no longer active in the city's street art scene (though he stays in touch through MENSK, the arts-related non-profit he helps run), says he does see Portland's culture shifting somewhat from "exclusively spray-painting," to more varied types of street art. (That said, he notes that Portland's train-painters are very widely known: "I've seen Portland, Maine, trains in North Dakota" and Alabama.)

Aubin Thomas isn't a tagger or street artist either, but in the past year or so has turned into a chronicler of the ad-hoc art scene here, as what she calls "curator of images" at her Freezetagging blog (

"I don't ever pretend to know what it's like to be a tagger" — she only tags on blackboards — but wants to preserve the art so it's not lost. "There are wonderful pieces of art around here . . . but then they disappear," she says, so in an effort to counter that, she takes long walks around different parts of town every week to photograph what she sees.

She has noticed a number of fascinating elements of the street-art community in Portland. "They talk to each other around the city," she says, leaving notes asking "who's this?" near a new tag, or incorporating elements in new creations that echo nearby pieces by other artists.

Letter shapes, and color, and medium (marker, paint, etc.) are part of their language, giving knowledgeable viewers and scene insiders messages about who drew what.

Like in other cities, marking a particularly visible or hard-to-get-to area (such as high up on a building) is a declaration of prowess, but Thomas noted that Maine street artists have other challenges. Back in December, she was out taking photos in a blizzard, and saw a tag that called attention to when it was made: "Blizzard bombing," it read.

In the past six months, she has noticed more labels and stickers going up around the city, works people draw at home and just slap up somewhere as they're walking by. She theorizes that is part a reaction to a pending city crackdown (see "Outlawing Art?") and part desire to do more intricate pieces in a less-risky way.

Thomas is definitely appreciative of the efforts of local street artists: "It adds to the layers of things we have in the city to look at," she says. And she observes that the Portland Museum of Art held an event earlier this year focused on local graffiti and street artists.

Outlawing art?

After years of a moderate tolerance to graffiti artists, Portland officials are reconsidering that approach. The city council's Public Safety Committee has proposed increasing the punishments for graffiti artists. That has brought thinly veiled threats from the street-art community of retribution by increased activity.

A second controversial element of the proposal would fine property owners who do not clean up if their buildings are tagged. That has led to objections from people who worry that they might be "victimized twice" — once by graffiti, and a second time by the city enforcing the clean-it-up law.

The proposal would also ban the sale of "graffiti tools," such as markers and spray-paint cans, to minors. Aubin Thomas notes that might be missing the point: "All of the graffiti artists and taggers I know are not minors."

While proponents say tagging would be discouraged if it were removed quickly, that's less certain in an art form whose very nature assumes, and even embraces, temporary display.

Eli Cayer suggests that fighting graffiti is best done Montreal-style, where the city hosts international events celebrating street art and "the whole downtown is tattooed, almost, with graffiti."

"I want to live in a city where I see more of the productions" — larger, artistic pieces — he says. "Not everybody does, I can appreciate that, (but) just because you don't like it doesn't mean it doesn't deserve respect."

Cayer cites as an example the new mural at Joe's Smoke Shop on Congress Street as a successful contribution of art to the community that also deters graffiti: "Joe's gets bombed all the time, and it's not going to now."