PORTLAND, Ore. — When I asked artist Rx Skulls where to shoot graffiti and street art when I came to town this past April, his most emphatic suggestion was Taylor Electric. Because Portland has a zero-tolerance policy on graffiti — no graffiti on any outside walls, with or without the owner’s consent — the city is low on murals and wheatpastes and rich in sticker art. The exception is in the less-policed industrial district, particularly the burned-out shell of Taylor Electric at 3rd and Clay.
There you’ll find the city’s more ambitious, large-scale tags and pastes — artworks that represent extensions of the work of both sticker artists and those you won’t find on the backs of street signs on Belmont. The building, the site of a former electric supply company, has become not just a wall but a whole immersive environment.
Taylor Electric is set for demolition any day now, much to the dismay of the Portland street art community. Rx and fellow sticker artist Skam showed me around the building, commenting that if the city were to officially make it a free space for artists (as it has been, in practice if not in law, for seven years) they’d be happy to help keep it clean and safe. The plan instead is to rebuild and convert it into a multilevel office space, featuring, of course, food carts, a bicycle commuter center, and a dog area.
As a visitor and a casual observer, my first reaction was: do they really need more food carts? The areas of the city that the Graffiti Abatement Program is targeting are those that most live up to Portland’s reputation for kitschy boutiques, craft alcohol, and themed restaurants. Or, in other words, they’re cleaning up the areas of the city that lend Portland its ethos as an artisan- and artist-friendly city while, in effect, they continue to squeeze local artists out.
The kicker is that Portland’s zero-tolerance policy has done nothing to help its property crime rates, which are higher than those in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and Boston, sometimes by a long shot . The abatement program and the city’s refusal to even consider free walls are as effective as hoping the artists will simply go away. Demolishing and rebuilding Taylor Electric, hiring volunteer crews to scrape stickers off signs, and encouraging citizen hand wringing over tags won’t stop them from getting up. As long as there’s no compromise to be reached between the city of Portland and the artists, the question for the latter won’t be what will we do with our time now? but where do we get up next?