Danny Hellman

On a Saturday night in January, vandals attacked the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood in Southeast Portland with spray paint, tagging light poles, utility boxes, and blank walls. The spray painters—who were tossing up "LMV X3," graffiti that stands for the Loco Mafia Varrio 13 gang—also took their spree a step further, tagging houses, garages, and even cars, reported Stephanie Reynolds, the neighborhood association's public safety chair.

Graffiti was at the top of the agenda at the next neighborhood meeting, and neighbors are planning a city-sponsored cleanup on February 24. But the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood isn't the only one dealing with a sudden surge of spray paint.

"The neighborhood police officer said that all of SE Portland has been hit pretty hard recently," says Neighborhood Association Chair Benjamin Hazelton.

Indeed, graffiti in Portland—especially downtown, and in SE Portland—has at least doubled this winter compared to last winter, according to the city's graffiti abatement coordinator, Marcia Dennis.

"It's this last eight-week period when we've seen this explosion," she says. According to her database of reported graffiti, there were 412 reports of graffiti from December 1, 2005 to January 31, 2006. For the same time period in 2006-2007—last December and January—Dennis has recorded 600 reports. And she and a volunteer have "a backlog of documented graffiti"—reports from downtown's Clean and Safe Program that haven't been entered into the database yet—"that probably would raise the number by another 200 to 300 for the eight-week period."

Downtown, property owners have seen more large tags recently, though the Clean and Safe Program generally cleans them up within 24 hours. Dan Lenzen, co-owner of the Concept Entertainment Group, says he has seen a doubling of graffiti in the last month. The Dixie Tavern had its windows acid-etched, which cost $450 to replace, Lenzen says. And he's found multiple tags on all of his buildings. 

At the Westshore Apartment building at 222 SW Pine, manager Doris Hawkins said taggers tossed up three large tags on the building's 2nd and Pine corner at the end of January. 

"It's definitely gotten worse lately," she says. "I'm getting pretty sick of it, to be honest. I don't know if they're getting more daring or if it's gangs marking their territory, but our tenants complain about it and say they don't feel as safe."

And in East Portland, graffiti is "possibly the worst it has ever been," East Precinct Sgt. Dave Anderson told the city's Gang Violence Task Force on February 9.

Dennis isn't sure if there's a solution, besides trying to clean it up as quickly as possible (she's slated five neighborhood cleanup days between now and June), and prosecuting offenders.

"The laws are not very punitive against graffiti vandals, and I suppose in the grand scheme of things it certainly isn't as serious as a person crime," she says. "But it is costing millions of dollars to abate."

City Commissioner Randy Leonard agrees, and is exploring ways to limit the sale of spray paint in Portland. "We haven't decided what age it would be, but [the ordinance] would prohibit the sale of spray paint to persons under 18 or 21," explains Leonard's chief of staff, Ty Kovatch. Retailers would also have to keep spray paint locked up, and ask for photo ID and log customers who buy it. Kovatch says the ordinance will likely come before city council by the summer.

Matt Davis contributed to this story.