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The Illicit Art of the Mural

Exploring Portland's Prettiest Walls

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In 2003, Clear Channel sued Portland for allowing large public paintings (murals) while giving billboards the thumbs down—up until then mural laws were relatively lax. In an effort to keep billboards out, the city was forced by the media giant to regulate murals under the city's sign code. The new regulations quickly made one thing clear: Artists and sign codes don't mix. The code is long and approval of signage is required, but most importantly, the code just wasn't designed to regulate murals.

The Original Art Mural Project, the proposed remedy to the mural's troubling legal identity, is scheduled for implementation on August 1. While still red tape, it's better than the sign code—it involves fees, a neighborhood review to approve location and mural content, and an inspection of the final product. So it's partly cloudy out for murals, but a few walls peek through the cloud coverage, either from the pre-Clear Channel days or through the cracks of the waning sign-code era.

I've designed a little walking trip to show off some of these murals. (While the first mural on the walk isn't in a public space, it's still well worth a looksie.) Start inside Bishops Barbershop on SE Hawthorne, where Shepard Fairey—the designer behind the iconic Obama "Hope" poster campaign—put up multiples of the "Obey" face, framing a menacing red communist star. Further down SE Hawthorne at the corner of 35th is a piece by Jesse Reno in which two faces tangle into a reptilian creature, caught in fields of turbulence and a brush-slashed atmosphere.

Continue north to Belmont where you'll head west until you reach the Belmont Garage, between 32nd and 31st. Suer and Raskoe have the west-facing wall right now, using the space for a green-faced boy who points with a twiggy arm toward a splintering of abstract shapes. Facing the street is a paste-up of a plump geisha crowned with skull-handled hairpins—part of a collaboration between Japan's Imaone, Tenga, and Shohei, which wraps around the wall in black-and-white characters. (Paige Prendergast of Breeze Block Gallery curated these murals.)

Now make your way to the Goodfoot on SE 28th and Stark, where you'll be taking a beer break. The Goodfoot's open-air smoking lounge displays permanent works by locals Jason Brown, Chris Haberman, Derek Olsen, Klutch, and Jesse Reno. Haberman packed a shotgun shell with multi-colored faces and unloaded on this wall, while Klutch painted a tidy flowing braid of grasses over the room's red basecoat. After you've beered yourself, keep going north on 28th until you pass yet another Bishops location—between Davis and Everett—then turn around and look up. You'll see the abstract works of Seak (Germany), Daim (Germany), and Joker (Portland)—this mural dates back to 2003, and is something of a landmark.

From here, head down to NE 7th, between Burnside and Couch, where you'll find a noteworthy piece by Brazil's Herbert Baglione, whose art is on the July cover of Juxtapoz magazine. On a background of golden floral bursts, a fat woman lies horizontally with an androgynous figure emerging from her belly, a face like a nesting doll's, with arms held up in a dramatic "O."

While it's not entirely clear if all of these murals are fully legal, the city is taking the right approach: getting a new law on the books and turning a semi-blind eye to murals that lack a permit. This isn't to say that acquiring a mural permit under the new program won't be a pain—especially when community reviews tend to churn out works that are both safe and mediocre. As Paige Prendergast puts it, "Public art should be the voice of a city... don't we love that Portland is weird? Then we should have some weird public art."

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