Aerosol art is now on the minds of many in Portland. Although graffiti comes nowhere close to issues such as homelessness or crime as a top concern among Oregon voters ahead of Election Day. However, it is still a problem. Complaints to the city have doubled since 2020 and taggers are leaving bigger marks on taller buildings that require construction lifts to clean, documents from the city show. Portland police and prosecutors, meanwhile, have focused their attention on “prolific” taggers.
Organizations like the Portland Coalition of Black Men have created a company to take on some of the blight caused by graffiti. Graffiti is a form of visual communication, usually illegal, involving the unauthorized marking of public space by an individual or group. Although the common image of graffiti is a stylistic symbol or phrase spray-painted on a wall by a member of a street gang, some graffiti is not gang-related. Graffiti can be understood as antisocial behaviour performed in order to gain attention or as a form of thrill seeking, but it also can be understood as an expressive art form.
The word is derived from the Italian word graffio (“scratch”), graffiti (“incised inscriptions,” plural but often used as singular) has a long history. Graffiti are in the remains of the Mayan city of Tikal in Central America, on rocks in Spain dating to the 16th century, and in medieval English churches. During the 20th century, graffiti in the United States and Europe was closely associated with gangs, who used it for a variety of purposes: for identifying or claiming territory, for memorializing dead gang members in an informal “obituary,” for boasting about acts (e.g., crimes) committed by gang members, and for challenging rival gangs as a prelude to violent confrontations.
The Hip Hop culture made graf an original element. This is the case because like Hip Hop, graffiti was particularly prominent in major urban centres. Graffiti is especially visible in the United States and Europe; common targets were subways, billboards, and walls. In the 1990s there emerged a new form of graffiti, known as “tagging,” which entailed the repeated use of a single symbol or series of symbols to mark territory. In order to attract the most attention possible, this type of graffiti usually appeared in strategically or centrally located neighbourhoods.
For many in Portland, graffiti is more than just an eyesore. The first film to recognize Portland’s Hop Hop scene, Small City Big Hip Hop focused on the murals and graffiti around the city. Based on a local poll, two-thirds of Portland-area voters said tagging was a “very big” or “moderately big” problem, according to a poll of 600 likely voters in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties. Among only Portland voters, 61 percent of respondents called graffiti a “very big” or “moderately big” problem, compared with 83 percent of respondents who put litter in the same two categories.