By: Edward Gutiérrez
Having grown up in the graffiti bastion that is Los Angeles, California I crave graffiti the way Portlanders crave brunch. Like when on the hunt for a brunch spot, my curiosity took me to Alberta Street in Northeast Portland. It was early 2018 and I was doing research to complete a comprehensive written analysis of the state of graffiti in Portland. I had a long list of stakeholders whom I would interview. From City of Portland staff to graffiti artists, I was ready to discover graffiti, á la mode de Portland. As I began to interview, suggestions of whom else I should talk to would spring up. From law enforcement to business owners and school principals, each person who was suggested was somehow directly involved with or impacted by graffiti.
Rite of Passage
Back to Alberta. Alex Southworth, aka Also Soso, arrives. We meet to discuss his experience with graffiti. A product of the Pacific Northwest, Alex understands the appeal of graffiti. In particular, the appeal amongst white youth growing up in semi-urban communities in Oregon and Washington.
Alex compares the thrill of tagging up a freight boxcar, bridge, or other surface with spray paint to a journey or endeavor, “in the USA we lack this rite of passage that young people have when they’re like 14-15.” Alex continues, “All over the world there’s these activities…that are dangerous or make you feel uncomfortable but test your resolve.”
Alex found graffiti was that activity for him and that growing up in Spokane, Washington was not a limitation. There he found his resolve while nourishing his creative side.
Dropping out of school is not something most flunkies are willing to talk about. For Daniel Sandoval, leaving the prestigious Academy of Art University of San Francisco (AAUSF) in 2003 was not a high point, but not something he shies away from speaking about either. Daniel studied for over a year at AAUSF with grant assistance from a foundation that helped children from marginalized communities achieve future success. He had originally been enrolled into the foundation’s roster while in grade school in California.
Today Daniel, known in art and graffiti circles as Dánish, has been using the fine art lessons he learned in San Francisco to brighten up the walls of private galleries along with public spaces such as the Hollywood Transit Center, Las Becerras in Rockwood, and the Sons of Haiti Masonic Lodge in North Portland, which is also one of the last black-owned properties on historic Mississippi Avenue.
A two-time dropout, once from high school and once from a fine arts university, Dánish marvels at how far he’s come. From the tough streets of Stockton, CA to the galleries and street-scapes of Portland, OR. Daniel Sandoval truly believes that a higher power guided him out of a city ranked by CBS news as the ninth most violent in America. Daniel states, “I think it was divine intervention. [The foundation] kind of went above and beyond because they knew the situation I was facing.”
Hate and Bias Graffiti
Juliette Murachioli’s LinkedIn profile lists her as a coordinator for the Office of Community and Civic Life. Like Daniel, Juliette is a California transplant living in Portland; however, unlike Daniel or Alex, she is not known for her graffiti skills. On the contrary, Juliette has been tasked with graffiti abatement for the City of Portland. I interviewed Juliette on May 26, 2017. At that time Juliette’s title was Graffiti Abatement Coordinator for the City of Portland’s since restructured and rebranded Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI).
May 26, 2017 was also the day three men were stabbed on the TRIMET Max light rail line. Two of the men who were stabbed died, one of them survived. The men were attacked by Jeremy Christian, a self-described white nationalist. Witness accounts describe the conflict beginning when Christian became irate at two young women riding the MAX, one of whom was of dark complexion and wearing a hijab. Then, the three men who were attacked became Christian’s targets after they tried to step in to defend the two young woman from further intimidation and harassment. This infuriated Christian, a convicted felon who had done hard time in the Oregon State Penitentiary system for an armed robbery. He had also been photographed at a right wing rally holding a baseball bat less than a month prior to the MAX line slayings. In a city of 650,000 that sees a yearly average of around 25 homicides, this act of violence was extreme and shook Portland to its core. At the time all this was occurring I had no indication that this was a watershed moment in Portland’s hate- and bias-filled history.
This traumatic event would also indirectly impact my graffiti research. During my late spring interview with Ms. Murachioli, she mentioned that her office had received 8,000 complaints of graffiti in the span of a year. In early 2017 she admits perceiving a noticeable increase in political graffiti. A few months prior, the November election of Donald Trump to the presidency, and his January 20, 2017 inauguration coupled with the January 27, 2017 Executive Order 13769 (infamously known as the Muslim Ban or Travel Ban), had an unexpected effect on Portland area activists. Activists were hitting Portland’s streets, blocked several of Portland’s iconic bridges, and even spilled on to the Interstate Highway at the Rose Quarter. Apparently spray cans were used by activists wanting to express their “fuck Trump” message in a visual way.
According to Juliette, “[The City of Portland’s] highest priority is hate-and-bias graffiti and getting it removed.” In addition, getting the Portland Police Bureau to investigate such cases is also a part of the plan, and as quickly as possible.
Portland Police Bureau
What is considered hate and bias graffiti? In Portland, symbols of hate and intolerance based on race, religion, gender or gender identity, or nationality would count as hate-and-bias graffiti. Examples would include a Nazi swastika, a defamed or slashed Star of David, a noose, and race-baiting or profane language are among some examples. The case of a tagging spree where swastikas were painted in a Southeast Portland neighborhood come to mind.
On LinkedIn, Officer Jeff Sharp is listed as a Police Detective for the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). It also says he attended Western Oregon University where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and Police Science. His experience lists 22 years with the Portland Police. Detective Sharp is tasked with investigating many of the reports of hate- and-bias graffiti in Portland. On May 29, 2017 I reached out to Det. Sharp via email. Surprisingly, he responded the next day,
“I am available to meet with you…are you okay with meeting over coffee?”
After this initial reply, three follow-up emails were sent to him. They elicited no further response. After that initial reply, I did not receive another message from Portland Police’s hate-and-bias detective.
There was no meeting over coffee to discuss the perceived increase in political and hate-and-bias graffiti in Portland. No conversations on how many investigations occur per year. I have asked myself, did the max slayings on May 26, 2017 have an impact on the PPB and Detective Sharp’s willingness to speak on the record about hate and bias? With the Max line killings occurring only five days prior I can only speculate that it may have. Besides, one can assume every detective in the PPB would be on alert for other possible hate crimes in the aftermath of the violent attack. With all the attention and requests from the national media, I can’t imagine that a coffee meeting to assist a graffiti research project ranked very high on the detective’s priority list. Nonetheless, I can’t help but think what that meeting would have revealed about graffiti in Portland.
A Form of Resistance
In addition to Alex’s belief that graffiti is a rite of passage in a society where tests of resolve are few and far in between, he also believes that there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about graffiti writers. According to Alex a few of these myths include: all tags are gang or turf related, all graffiti is done by teenage kids, all graffiti writers are reckless, and taggers have no remorse for their actions. Alex acknowledges that there are many youth who have not honed their craft and don’t understand graffiti as a pillar of a tradition steeped in the legacy of hip hop. Alex suggests these uneducated newbies often go for tags on church walls, small businesses, schools, or homes, the proverbial low-hanging fruit, as he describes. However, Alex also points to gentrification, displacement, the ills of suburbia, the art walk trend, and hip hop culture as influencing factors pointing towards graffiti as a form of resistance.
“[Graffiti] will always be a form of resistance. Even for…what I would call street art, the gentrified form of graffiti which is more tolerated by middle class white people.” Alex concludes, “these 13-year-old kids… are going out and hitting a tag with a marker even if [they don’t] understand it as resistance…I think the spirit of it will always be the same.”