Walking through the streets of downtown Portland, Oregon, trying to find a place to eat dinner in the mecca of food trucks and creative doughnuts, I remember seeing graffiti everywhere: on the side of a building, framing a walk through an alley, on a bridge across the Willamette River. From intricate, colorful designs to a simple word or symbol, spray paint was a main source of expressing artistic creativity. These painted compositions were not only displayed throughout Portland, but appreciated by every passerby, including myself.
Deciding on an Italian restaurant, I was seated with a view of a intricately graffitied butterfly on a relatively white building out the window with thoughts such “How did they get that up there?” and “How were they able to include such elaborate detail?” and “Why hasn’t someone painted over that graffiti with a variation of white paint that doesn’t quite match the rest of the relatively white building?” I’d like to believe that the butterfly permanently flew on the side of the building not because it was too tall for even a major league basketball player to reach, but because the public appreciated its existence–because people wanted it to stay there.
Contently full of pasta, the obvious decision was to attempt to walk off the dinner alongside the Willamette River. A wide concrete walkway followed the river, travelling under industrial bridges and beside the city of Portland. I remember seeing graffiti everywhere: on the railing of the bridges, on the concrete walkway, on the benches sat with a view of the river. These arrangements were more than a simple drawing, or an act of defiance, or a symbol of rebellion, or a tag of a local gang: it defined Portland. These spray-painted pictures were an act of inspiration. There was no menace behind the aerosol can–it was meant expose beauty, or illustrate something meaningful to the artist that created it. Something as simple as a small outline of a heart on a concrete pillar seemed to epitomize the culture of Portland.
I was raised with the belief that graffiti was bad. The connotation that the word “graffiti” carried with it was of defiance, rebellion, and violence. Seeing graffiti on the side of a building in Petaluma was a against the law; it was an act of defacing public property. The person that put the graffiti on the side of a building was a criminal. A can of spray paint was an illegal substance to hold in your hand. It was a weapon, not a utensil of artistry.
But walking through the streets of downtown Portland, surrounded by buildings decorated with a fascinating collection of colors and lines. I remember absorbing the pieces of aesthetic genius everywhere: I remember concluding that the person that held the can of spray paint was not a rebel without a cause, but a graffiti artist.