Graffiti has long been used to mark territory, post challenges, publish slogans, and broadcast personal expression. But when it starts turning up in a gentrifying neighborhood en masse, residents worry. Especially when it means street gang activity in the area is on the rise.
So it was with a heavy heart that Ethan Jewett returned to his Northeast neighborhood of Woodlawn after Christmas this year to find a rash of holiday tagging. Stretching east from MLK on Dekum St., the graffiti shows the markings of a number of identified Portland gangs. It covered fences, garages, businesses and poles, making for an ugly, and unsettling, sight.
“It almost looks like they must have come in shifts,” Jewett says, “to cover up the whole [street].” Jewett is confident that the spray-paint contains the coded symbols of a “Hodge podge of African American and Hispanic gangs.” He knows this because of a police presentation on gangland graffiti codes at a recent neighborhood association meeting.
According to Portland Police, for example, the initials PBR stand for Paso Robles Boys, LMV for Loco Mafia Varrio, and the Roman numeral-esque XV3 for 18th street; all street gang names. In all, police identified around ten types of gang grafs to Woodlawn residents.
While Jewett doesn't see the increased presence of gang activity as especially threatening to his safety, he sees how others could be nervous to walk the streets alone, particularly at night. But he is particularly disappointed that a neighborhood struggling to right its image would be hit so hard.
In an email to WW, Jewett summed up his frustration, “Our small commercial district is on the verge of a major transformation which promises to return a thriving center to Woodlawn Neighborhood. Gang turf [is] not conducive to entrepreneurs opening shops and eateries.”
But Jewett is unsure if gang activity is truly on the rise, or if this is an iconoclastic reaction to gentrification. He believes the recent taggings may be the “last gasp of [gang activity] in a community that is rapidly changing.”
According to Jewett, the City has yet to remove the graffiti on Northeast Dekum. But the good news is that Portland encourages residents to contact the City's graffiti coordinator: Marcia Dennis at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 503-823-5860 for free graffiti removal assistance.