Many of the artists involved in Forest for the Trees—a week-long public mural project that just wrapped up in Portland—got their start in dark alleyways and on rickety ladders with small stencils, spray cans and stickers.

Over the last week 15 muralists from around the world converged on Portland to create 10 original pieces of art.

And while they painted, mural activists also shared a bigger point: the application process to create a mural is slow and difficult to navigate, especially for traveling muralists not sponsored by groups such as Forest for the Trees.

Two weeks ago, Portland police made Cannon Dill, a well known San Francisco street artist, paint over his piece in Southeast Portland—even though he had the building owner's permission.

Dill's run-in with Portland's Graffiti Task Force cops is the latest in a long, uneasy relationship between muralists and the city.

Tiffany Conklin, co-director of Portland Street Art Alliance and the blogger at PDX Street Art, says she wants to make decorating the side of a building much easier, and hopes to work with police to save non-permitted murals from being painted over.

"In many other cities, street art is celebrated," Conklin says.

She says among her ideas is forming a Portland version of San Francisco's Freespace, a 1,400 sq. ft. warehouse that serves as a canvas for public art.

But Conklin faces the city's less-than-friendly history with murals.

For seven years, new murals in Portland were banned, says Joanne Oleksiak, an activist involved with Portland Mural Defense, a group that wants murals to be recognized as a form of art.

In 1998, AK Media, later bought out by Clear Channel, sued the city to stop murals. The company—the major billboard landlords in Portland—claimed the city was unfairly applying the sign code by not regulating public art the same way it did commercial signs.
Oleksiak says her group, Portland artist Joe Cotter and Outside In lobbied three different mayors to find a way to distinguish murals from signs. In 2004, a compromise—the Public Art Mural Program, administered by the Regional Arts and Culture Council—was created. Murals approved under the program receive funding and are added to the city’s public art collection.
But the application requires a review of the mural design by a RACC committee and takes several months to complete. A total of 60 murals have been approved under the program since 2005, RACC says.
In 2009, the city created another avenue for Portland muralists: the Original Art Murals Project. While this process does not require a review of the design, it still takes at least a month to complete.

The Lost Cause, the local street artist who painted the Beatles-inspired mural on Music Millennium, says a month is too long.

"We get people from out of town that would love to paint a mural and add to our collection." The Lost Cause says. "It doesn’t allow them to do that. Creativity is fleeting and to have to wait for a month just doesn’t work for the medium."
Portland Police Bureau's Graffiti Task Force will force non-permitted work to be painted over —even if artists have permission to paint from the owner of the building. Conklin says she hopes to find a way to allow non-permitted murals to be viewed by the bureaucracy as art—and a way to cut back on actual tagging.

"These people are not part of gangs,” Conklin says. “These are murals that are going to prevent that sort of tagging from occurring.”