WHITEWASH Want to graffiti your building? Not without a permit! Lorna McLornahan
Several weeks ago Jason Brown, the owner of New American Casuals, invited aerosol artists to paint the side of his store. The mural that resulted features a mix of graffiti-style writing and a large figure posing with a can of spray paint. The colorful mural is a component of his ongoing campaign to show off local artists' talents and, eventually, to beautify the bird poop-splattered underside of the Morrison Bridge, where Brown's store is located.

But if city hall has its way, the mural will soon be whitewashed, even though it's on private property and has not been objected to by immediate business neighbors. A stern city code modification that was enacted five years ago forbids murals that are created without having undergone an expensive and bureaucratic permitting process.

"We've had more honks and cheers from people going by than people stopping to gripe about it," contends Brown.

But the painting on the side of New American Casuals has re-ignited a long simmering controversy over Portland's city code governing signs. In 1998, the city expanded its sign code to include commercial logos and advertisements as well as community murals under the same restrictions. "It's exceptionally black and white," says Andrew Millard, a technician for the City of Portland's Bureau of Development. "Anything that conveys an image or a meaning is a sign."

But many in town think that treating murals with so much scrutiny is counterproductive, and it's a law that many are eager to see changed. Proprietors like Brown want to loosen the code and allow a greater proliferation of public art that reflects and affirms community and local character.

Located under the Morrison Bridge in the industrial inner Southeast, New American Casuals has provided a space for hiphop-influenced artists and graffiti writers as far flung as Germany to display their work. In addition to the hangings inside the store, both the back and sidewalls of the building are home to aerosol collaborations. "The back wall's kind of an ongoing graffiti project," Brown explains, "and we're going to turn the big side wall into a bimonthly new wall, ranging in everything from graffiti art to stenciling to fine arts."

Rather than limiting his vision to the store, Brown would like to see the underside of the Morrison Bridge--currently a dismal concrete ceiling and pigeon roost--incorporated as a canvas for the arts. The proposition is inspiring: an outdoor, urban Sistine Chapel of colorful, community-based art replacing the drab belly of thoroughfare. "We'd keep it clean themes, and open; not just graffiti artists. People could come in with a paintbrush or can and roller or whatever else they wanted to bring in as a medium," Brown says.

But before this beautification can be considered, Brown has to contend with opposition to the artwork on the store itself. Despite his landlord's okay, the sidewall may soon be painted.

According to Brown, Art Hendricks, Crime Prevention Manager for the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement, came in to inform Brown about a complaint lobbied against the mural. Hendricks says that this meeting was the result of numerous complaints from businesses and residents in the area. "There had been some graffiti tags similar to the style [of the person who painted the mural]--it's a very distinctive style," says Hendricks, explaining why the mural was generating so much curiosity.

According to Hendricks, as long as the owner of the building has given permission and Brown goes through the permitting process, "he won't hear from me again." However, he acknowledges that this process "is a substantial cost." In addition, Brown may have to face other hurdles--he may also need to clear a land use review, the outcome of which could be influenced by whether his neighborhood association approves of the mural's style and content.

This might spell trouble if the wall's already attracting curiosity and paranoia over illegal graffiti in the area. However, this challenge could also be an opportunity to set a precedent and help pave the way for Brown's ultimate scheme of transforming the underside of the Morrison Bridge--an undertaking that represents the significantly greater complication of painting on city owned property, rather than a privately owned building.

If the permitting is successfully carried out, Brown's mural project could become a positive outlet for local hiphop culture, and call attention to the need for public spaces provided as an alternative to illegal graffiti art. "If you don't want to deal with it as a problem, give it a solution," challenges Brown. "There are amphitheaters for music, there's basketball courts for kids that are into sports, but where are there walls?"