Off The Streets

Portland graffiti waxes genteel.

Ashley Montague painting at Chapter 24 Vineyards.

You will never see the full mural on the west wall of Southeast Stark Street’s Bonfire Lounge. The graffitied wall is a story-high epitaph to Michael Brown, painted by local muralist Ashley Montague two days after a white police officer fatally shot the black youth in Ferguson, Mo. On the right half, a yard-high, glowing portrait of Brown releases an ivory dove toward heaven and Bonfire’s sidewalk awnings. The left side is a half-formed blob of black graffiti, swallowing up what used to be two policemen aiming guns at the ethereal Brown. Most days the entire mural is obstructed by dumpsters anyway. 

Portland's graffiti isn't street art like it used to be. 

Montague's spray paint and sweat barely dried before Bonfire's owner called, wary of criticism and violence, asking Montague to redo the mural or see it painted over.

His work now consists mostly of commissioned murals on authorized walls, like the side of Lowbrow Lounge or the wall Chapter 24 Vineyards asked him to live-paint during the winery's Memorial Day tastings. He also gives PowerPoint presentations at elementary schools. Other artists are making their mark online, like the anonymous founder of the Invoice PDX blog, and the former graffiti artist called TLC switched to a tattooing career.

On May 11, developers started demolishing the burnt-out concrete shell of Southeast Clay Street's old Taylor Electric building, which once lured tourists and photographers after street artists made it their mecca. By summer, Killian Pacific plans to develop the site into a 60,000-square-foot industrial office building. 

“That’s where I started making my art,” says the anonymous founder of local graffiti blog Invoice PDX. 

With a keen eye, you'll find a story-high eagle in flight on Northwest Hoyt Street and alienlike green orbs that Jeremy Nichols sprayed on a Southeast Belmont Street garage. But the city's adamant zero-tolerance policy and graffiti abatement program mean most tags get covered quickly. 

They'll always find somewhere, Montague says: "If you have to hop a fence to get there, you're painting for other street artists and cred, not as public art. We go around and see the lettering, etc. It's an art form appreciated like a well-played tennis game."

"Grandfathered walls," painted before the Regional Arts & Culture Council adopted a no-tolerance policy, get to stay painted. They can be passed on, if the right paperwork crosses the right desks, as in the case of Bonfire.

Maybe street art peaked too soon after a crew called Gorilla Wallflare spray-painted Portland's first mural (so street art legend goes) along Southeast Division Street in 1982. 

“Street art had its day in Portland already,” Montague says. “It was in the ’90s.” 

Maybe the new streets are lined with retail, like the bottom level of 240 Clay, buzzing with day-trippers like the Highway 99W tasting room at Chapter 24 Vineyards, or cybertrafficked by shoppers buying Invoice PDX stickers via SquareSpace. 

WWeek 2015

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