Walk down Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard (or Northwest 21st Avenue or Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard), and it looks like Portland loves posters. Evidence of the city's cultural life blooms in multicolored jackets of paper: fliers shilling for underground concerts, art happenings brave and dubious, political opinions courageous, unlikely and confused.

The posters beg after lost pets and pimp everything from yard sales to pro wrestling matches. When nearly two million people rub up against each other in a city, things happen. Posters--within almost anyone's means--are perhaps the most reliable indicator of exactly what.

Officially, though, the City of Portland hates posters. This summer, the municipal government plans to spend up to $6,000 (half from tax coffers, half provided by utility companies) to rid telephone poles of posters. The city's anti-graffiti office will run the effort, engaging convicted offenders in Multnomah County community-service programs to do the work.

This development in Mayor Vera Katz's quest for a Clean Portland is particularly disturbing to people involved in the city's music and arts scenes, as it strikes directly at their ability to publicize their work.

"This is really a free speech issue," says Mike King, a graphic designer and longtime Portland resident. "I get irritated when people don't get that. Democracy is not necessarily neat and tidy."

The response to the city campaign from those who rely on posters as a commercial and political medium is still taking shape. The art collective Red76 is organizing a push it calls the Poster Conservation Campaign, a guerrilla effort to adorn Portland poles with posters that are works of art or literature in and of themselves. Each of the PCC's posters--which range from abstract art to dense blocks of text--will be adorned with a red "P" stamp.

As poles along the city's busiest thoroughfares become mysteriously naked over the summer, other such protests are likely to materialize. Meanwhile, WW asked some of Portland's most prolific and inventive poster artists, whose artistic flair and design sense elevate this utilitarian medium, for permission to reproduce some to their best work.

While their commercial purposes are evident (most advertise rock concerts), these posters serve as a reminder of a vital and vibrant aspect of Portland's artistic and urban life that may soon be endangered, if not extinct.

Hugh McDowell, the city official charged with running the poster clean-up campaign, says he'll present City Council with a report pointing toward future action at the end of the summer. He invites suggestions for solutions to the postering dilemma to hmcdowell@ci.portland.or.us.

Of related interest:

For Posting: An Exhibit of Contemporary Letterpress Broadsides
In Cahoots Artspace
328 NW Broadway, 827-5319.
Opening reception: 6-9 pm Thursday, June 7.
Closes June 29.