Johnne Eschleman considers himself as serious an artist as they come; he spends hours planning, buying supplies, and weighing his aesthetic worth in relation to that of other artists. He works primarily outside, so when he's installing his work he has to consider the effects of the weather, the environment, how many cars pass in a day, how visible his site it. The only problem? By placing his silk-screen posters and show announcements for his band, the Distance Formula, on poles and walls around Portland, he's breaking the law.

And like the estimated hundreds of other artists who use this medium, Eschleman is now caught in the middle of a public debate that centers around what our city should look like, and more importantly, who gets to make that decision. Artists argue that in spite of its illegality, the act of putting posters up in public space is an act of free speech and one of the few ways to promote underground, local music; on the other hand, City Hall argues that private property is just that, and that these signs pollute the aesthetic environment.

Though it sounds like a trivial matter, a similar debate has escalated in Seattle for nearly a decade now. Ever since the Seattle City Council began a similar poster-ban (ironically, it was in 1993, about the same time that the grunge poster art from Seattle was gaining national attention), the law has been consistently enforced, and the poles emptied of information. That plan included a proposal to establish kiosks to replace telephone poles as conduits of information. Yet, eight years later, there are only two such kiosks--and one is slated for re-location next month. Moreover, the kiosks are privately run and managed by a company who reserves the right to take down whatever signs it sees fit, a policy that has resulted in an arbitrary censorship of posters.

"I look at a city like Seattle and hope that Portland never looks like that," said Eschleman, referring to Seattle's bare poles and sterile, concrete appearance.

Eight months ago, Mayor Vera Katz spearheaded a plan to rid the city of the posters, advertisements, and art that are tacked onto poles everyday. Without a formal name, the plan is still at the preliminary stages. Katz asked Hugh McDowell, Graffiti Prevention Coordinator for the City of Portland, to facilitate the postering removal. In the next few weeks, McDowell will develop a plan based on community suggestions, a plan which he will submit to City Council for review after six months of community suggestions.

"Both the mayor and I were getting calls from different members of the community," said McDowell, who emphasizes that the plan only remains a pilot project at this point. "I'm not unsympathetic to the artists, and I'm not taking a stand either way," he continues. Currently, McDowell has no specific proposed models for the poster-ban plan, though he is looking at other cities. "There's no easy answer to this problem," he explains. But he is certain about the outcome: a reduction in the amount of postering in this city.

Both McDowell and the Mayor's office explained that the plan will emphasize prevention, rather than punishment; McDowell is counting on the community to keep the poles clean once the campaign has begun. And the mayor's office promises that Orwellian police tactics won't be employed in this project. "This is a pilot project, I expect it will eventually be turned over to the community," says Elisa Dozono spokesperson for the mayor. "It worries me that people think all of a sudden there's going to be commandos on the streets."

Yet on March 4, according to a police report, a man named Douglas Jon Siess was arrested for resisting arrest while tacking up promotions in Northeast Portland, for his band, the Quaker Goats. In his police report, arresting officer Hurley states: "I saw Siess place a white sheet of paper with some sort of a logo on a telephone pole, and staple it in place with a staple gun. This is an unclassified city code misdemeanor." At this point, the two stories diverge; Siess says he was thrown to the ground, cuffed, and jailed without being informed as to why he was arrested. Conversely, the police report says that Siess began reaching toward a pocket knife--cause for the officer to take him down. Regardless of who's right or wrong, it's clear that Douglas Jon Siess was arrested in a scuffle sparked by postering.

The Mayor's office states several reasons for the ban, but ultimately admits it comes down to an aesthetic difference--one that is a "constant irritant" to community members. "While there are some safety issues around the pole graffiti, it's largely a livability issue," says Elysa Dozono, spokesperson for the mayor. Seemingly fishing for other excuses, Dozono explained that the health of the poles is also at stake: "If too many signs are posted, the poles can rot," she says.

Kregg Arntson, spokesperson for PGE, echoes Dozono in his aversion to the appearance of pole graffiti. After initially suggesting that it is a safety issue for the workers, who might encounter bolts or nails when shimmying up a pole, or that the larger signs could block the view of drivers, Arntson admitted that "the main issue is that people consider this a form of visual pollution." PGE owns the bulk of the 60 million poles in the Metropolitan area. Other companies that use the poles--PGE, Qwest, Portland Power And Light--are all are contributing $3000 to this project, along with $3000 from the city's Graffiti Abatement Fund.

To Eschleman and his fellow postering artists, any amount of money put toward poster removal is too much. "Ninety percent of the signs we see when we go outside are advertisements," he explained. "I just want the chance to look at something else." And, he adds, that's not to mention the loss of a free service. "To do away with pole postering would be a detriment to people who don't have the means to promote the stuff on telephone poles--yard sales, lost pets, upcoming shows--any other way," Eschleman concluded.

Hugh McDowell, Graffiti Prevention Coordinator for the City of Portland, encourages all community members to voice their suggestions: email, or call 503-823-5860.