FLEDGLING SOUTHEAST Portland gallery the Railyard had big plans for their July 4 show, Special Delivery: Two dozen Bay Area artists created "street-art inspired" pieces on canvasses, panels, and straight on the walls of their warehouse gallery. But while the opening brought a large crowd to the former brewing building on SE 23rd and Holgate, it also brought the attention of Portland Police Bureau's graffiti abatement team. Alarmed that the art show could be linked to illegal graffiti citywide, several police officers attended the opening and worked with the Railyard's landlord to evict the gallery last week.
The incident illustrates a conflict that Portland, and cities across the country, are dealing with: Mainstream art communities increasingly view some graffiti as modern art, but outside of gallery walls, all graffiti is still a crime.
On the morning of Tuesday, August 23, gallery owner Todd Durham says Railyard's landlord, the city's two graffiti abatement officers, and a locksmith showed up at the warehouse, told Durham his lease was moot, and gave the five businesses that share the space a week to move out.
"Our officers became aware that this warehouse and those that rented it hosted prolific taggers from California to come to Portland," writes Portland Police Bureau spokesman Lieutenant Robert King, via email. "They tagged inside and outside the warehouse and our officers believe tagged at other locations around the city."
"They specifically kicked us out because they didn't like our art," says Durham, who says that the intention of the show was in part to kickstart a "mural district" around the industrial area.
Police also targeted a sister gallery hosting a show by one of the Special Delivery artists, Chris Moon.
Serre Murphy, owner of Samo Lives gallery on SE 39th and Gladstone, says graffiti abatement police officer Anthony Zanetti showed up to Moon's July 4 art opening and said the gallery would be fined $500 for a large painting on its outer wall. Murphy admits he didn't go through the proper city process to get the painting approved, but contests the idea that it's bad for the neighborhood.
"We haven't done any tagging. All we've done is beautiful artwork. Some people may not like it, but it's beautiful artwork," says Murphy, who adds that he is planning to paint over the mural to stay out of trouble with the police.
Portland has taken an increasingly hard line against graffiti in recent years. In 2007, the city council passed a rule requiring stores to record the name and identification of every person who purchases spray paint. This year, the city put $409,000 in one-time funding into its graffiti abatement program and increased the police's graffiti squad from one officer to two. At the time of the Special Delivery show, the neighborhood around the Railyard was under police watch as a graffiti "hot spot."
The Office of Neighborhood Involvement and the police target graffiti because they believe it could be connected to gangs and also contributes to other, more serious crimes in areas that look uncared for.
Portland's crime map database doesn't separate out graffiti from other vandalism crimes, but Inner Southeast Portland has the highest reports of vandalism of any neighborhood in the city, with 556 incidents so far this year.
Railyard neighbor and furniture maker Brian Gualtieri says there has been graffiti on the former brewery building for years.
"The last time the landlord got graffiti removed was five years ago," says Gualtieri.
Durham says the gallery did paint on the outside of the building when they moved in, but they consider the works to be murals meant to rebuff graffiti writers who tag the warehouse's roof.
"The cops think we're trying to promote graffiti. That's the opposite of what we're trying to do," says Durham.
The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art dealt with similar issues this summer as it hosted the most popular show in its history, Art in the Streets. The street art showcase attracted over 201,000 museumgoers, but also the ire of LA police, who say the show led to an uptick in graffiti
Portland State University professor Hunter Shobe says Portland's zero tolerance approach to graffiti is typical of American cities, though graffiti is becoming increasingly viewed as legitimate art. Street artist Shepard Fairey, for example, designed Barack Obama's most iconic campaign poster.
"On the one hand there seems to be increased attention on trying to crack down on this," says Shobe. "But you see increased acceptance of street art within the art world and more gallery shows."