Graffiti Police Force Artist to Buff Owner-Authorized Mural

On Monday August 12, 2013 the City of Portland was about to have a new and exciting addition to its public art collection. Cannon Dill, a highly regarded artist from San Francisco was visiting Portland. He is known for incredibly detailed black and white aerosol murals of enchanting wolf-like creatures and his murals can be seen in cities across the country, including Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Oakland, Brooklyn, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and New Orleans. His artwork is usually welcomed and celebrated as invigorating dull walls and dilapidated urban environments. However, to our dismay, it was met with contempt in Portland.

Cannon Dill and Brett Flanagan Mural in Pilsen District, Chicago 2013

Cannon Dill and Brett Flanagan Mural in Pilsen Neighborhood, Chicago 2013

About a quarter of the way through painting a self-funded mural on the side of a chronically tagged building in inner Southeast Portland (SE 9th and Ash) Dill was interrupted by two Portland Police officers.

The building owner, who arrived at the scene shortly after, immediately expressed their satisfaction with the progress and told the officers that they had given Dill permission to paint the mural.  The owner explained that they were trying to deter repeat graffiti tagging. Over the years, they have spent a lot of money (city fines and supplies) and time painting over unwanted markings. Art murals are a proven way of reducing tagging and increasing the economic and cultural vitality of a neighborhood.

After realizing that Dill’s mural was not un-authorized ‘graffiti’ and was instead an owner-authorized mural, the Portland Police officers seemed to be appeased. At that point, in most cities, the situation would have been over and the artist would have been allowed to continue. But in Portland, painting a mural is not that easy.

Existing Graffiti on Wall

Existing Graffiti on Wall

In-Progress Mural

In-Progress Mural

Parking Lot, View of Surrounding Area

Parking Lot, View of Surrounding Area

Shortly after, officer Anthony Zanetti, one of the Portland Police Department’s two Graffiti Abatement Task Force officers arrived at the scene. Officer Zanetti said that due to the lack of proper permitting the mural had to be removed immediately or the building owner would be issued a City citation and fined as being a Graffiti Nuisance Property. In Portland, both private and business property owners can be fined (up to $250 per incident of graffiti) and even jailed if there’s graffiti on their property for more than 10 days after they are issued a citation. This can be quite a burden on small businesses and residents.

DILL MURAL

Portland Police at the ‘Crime’ Scene

Zanetti continued to explain to the owner, that his permission did not matter; they still needed a $250 permit from the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC).

While it’s true that the property owner’s permission does not matter in the eyes of the City of Portland when it comes to painting art on the outside of buildings, other things officer Zanetti is reported to have said are not accurate.

Going through RACC is not the only way to paint a mural in Portland. The City has an Original Art Mural Permitting Program, which in most cases, costs only $50. RACC does provide mural artists exceptions to the city sign codes (providing an easement and adding the mural to the city’s public art collection), but that process is free, and if approved, RACC will actually match an artist’s mural funding up to $10,000.

Why did officer Zanetti give the owner inaccurate information? At minimum, we should hold those accountable whose job it is to abate graffiti and and enforce mural regulations to know and provide the public factual information about these rules and processes.

This is also surprising because the City’s new Graffiti Abatement Program Coordinator, Dennis LoGiudice, recently said that he was not going to make regulating non-permitted community murals a priority in his office, which works in partnership with the two Graffiti Task Force police officers.

Zanetti also told the owner that those who do graffiti hide their ‘crew signs’ in their pieces. At the 2013 Graffiti Abatement Summit this past May, Officer Matt Miller (the other Portland Graffiti Abatement officer) said he and his partner focus their efforts on ‘gang’ graffiti. They estimate that 13-15% of reported cases in the city are ‘gang-related’ (a number we haven’t seen updated by the task force since 2006). However, this estimate is biased and unreliable because it is not systematic and only includes reported cases (and not all cases). It’s also a relatively small proportion compared to other cities. A good amount of Portland’s actual gang graffiti is on the edges of the city, not in the inner-city.

Cannon Dill’s artwork is not ‘gang’ related. He is an artist who mainly paints permission murals and shows his work in galleries. It’s a stereotype that all young people who put their work in the streets (especially those who use aerosol paint and are ethnic minorities) are members of gangs or crews. The main function of these ‘crews’ Zanetti is referring to is to network, share information, organize street art-related events, and paint large murals in cities. All of these tasks take organization and management. Associating artists with criminal gangs (or crews) is often used a fear tactic by authorities to demonize artists and justify more graffiti abatement (in the form of graffiti nuisance property, criminal mischief, vandalism, and trespassing fines). This is a self-reinforcing cycle, the more graffiti ‘problems,’ the more job security for graffiti abatement officials.

One of the main purposes of police officers, in general, is to enforce property laws meant to control access and conduct in public space (or spaces viewed from public space). As soon as you put art in this realm, it is regulated and controlled for us, and not by us.

The fact that the City of Portland requires mural permits is often unknown to visiting artists because in most cities (Seattle and San Francisco for example) there are no permits required for murals and all you need is owner-permission. Neither Cannon Dill, nor the property owner, knew that a mural permit was required. Also, visiting artists often are not able to navigate these permitting processes because it can take anywhere from one to three months to complete and requires someone being physically present to organize and attend neighborhood meetings and post proposed mural site notices.

The situation on Monday afternoon concluded with Dill being forced to buff his mural with white paint. Dill was then told by police to get out of town.

Buffed Mural

Buffed Mural, Present Condition of the Wall

This incident is yet another example of the current problem Portland faces with creating art in public spaces. We’re missing out on showcasing local and visiting artists’ work in our city.

This is not the first time Portland’s Graffiti Abatement officers have shut down grassroots efforts to beautify the city with murals. They have targeted numerous galleries, community groups, and other mural efforts over the years (i.e., the Special Delivery Gallery show in 2011 and the Samo Lives Gallery in 2012). These situations portray Portland as being an unwelcoming city for public creativity; something other cities are fully embracing.

It seems that many of these threats and shutdowns are also solely aimed at artists working with aerosol paint. For many artists, aerosol is not just a cheaper and easier way to paint large works, it provides a certain aesthetic quality that other mediums cannot replicate.

Even more concerning is that our access to public space in Portland is under siege. Countless barriers are in place that makes it difficult for people to navigate and receive proper permission to paint a mural or otherwise improve our shared public spaces. By systematically denying the city’s diverse artistic possibilities, authorities are increasingly working to encode privilege and exclusion in our public spaces by setting up legal and environmental barriers that make these spaces off-limits to us. If we’re not careful, Portland will turn into a ‘Disneyfied’ version of its former weird and quirky self.

While community art is closely monitored and regulated, countless un-permitted corporate advertising signage across the city is unregulated – something the city could profit from if proper resources were dedicated to corporate signage enforcement.

In difficult financial times, when city budgets and important social programs are being slashed, why does the City continue to use public resources and tax monies on an aggressive graffiti abatement task force that pursues, intimidates, and prosecutes street artists instead of violent criminals?

PSAA is in contact with the property owner whose mural was buffed, and will be helping them secure a city mural permit so a mural can be painted without police interference. In addition to posting your thoughts in the comment section below, we urge everyone to contact Mayor Hales (mayorcharliehales@portlandoregon.gov) and our local City Commissioners and let them know how you feel about this situation.

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33 responses to “Graffiti Police Force Artist to Buff Owner-Authorized Mural

  1. I am deeply saddened by one of my most favorite cities ability to not see the beauty and positive influence that street art can give them. Not to mention lost revenue from people like myself who like to visit cities who have the courage to display public works of art by prolific street artists such as Cannon Dill. Time to wake up Portland and see the differences between gang tags and beautiful pieces of art.

    • When I moved to Portland, there didn’t seem to be as many laws that were enforced. Now, if you spit on the sidewalk, you are subject to arrest and imprisonment. Why would we want to go that direction as a city…Especially when we are talking about an enhancement of our physical surroundings with beautiful artwork…Music is noise, art is grafitti, up is down, black is white.

  2. We are absolutely fed up with the singular interpretation of the “broken window theory”, that graffiti is the gateway to crime in a city.

    If Portland’s voters put defunding graffiti abatement on the ballot the voters could tell the city to use those million of dollars to stimulate the local economy, in which unemployment, underemployment, and homelessness is horridly high and is the real reason for crime. If unemployment is low and wages are high, crime rates lower. This happened in NYC when the Police origonally cracked down on graffiti, but what was reported was that graffiti abatement works. Americans unable to see the economic data during that time, we weren’t allowed to see that employment rose and unemployment fell to it’s lowest number.

    Graffiti Abatement in Portland is part of the Gang Task Force and they contract out with a private firm for data collection and analysis. Our question is, who on the gang task force or graffiti abatement is an art authority to say what is art and what is a tag? We believe that police are not authorities on art. They are authorities only on enforcing the law, period. We also believe that city leaders that developed these policies are not art authorities either.

    This should be a great time for the people of Portland’s to ask serious questions on who and what organizations are influencing the city government and police department to say that graffiti is not art.

    Ask questions. Ask more questions. Then ask more questions. Portland’s cultural future is on the line.

    Jonathan Boys, Emerging Artist Magazine

  3. Art is not a crime. For the police to actually force that artist to buff that beautiful piece of art, in the name of “standard procedure” is not only saddening and ridiculous, but infuriating. Just as a shadow of a person is casted on the ground by the sun, it is plain to see in the eyes of justice that the only crime that was committed in this exchange, were the legal threats made by police against Dill and the owner if DIll did not stop painting that mural and immediately buff it. It plain to see, that that artwork would not only beautify the city, but indeed would also deter other people from tagging that building. If the owner of the building is not only ok with an artist painting on the building, but ENCOURAGES and WANTS an artist to do so for sound and right-minded reasons, then let it be so for crying out loud. That man’s mural on that building would have been in so many ways a GOOD THING. I repeat, a GOOD THING. The fact that goodness was denied is simply another testament to the truth that the city of Portland’s policies on community art and the Portland Graffiti Abatement team seriously needs to be reformed.

  4. “…when city budgets and important social programs are being slashed, why does the City continue to use public resources and tax monies on an aggressive graffiti abatement task force that pursues, intimidates, and prosecutes street artists instead of violent criminals?” The simple answer is: to make easy money.

  5. Perhaps if people simply checked with local regulations, laws, and ordinances, then the proper permits would have been filed and nobody would have had a problem. Always dot your I’s and cross your T’s.

    • @THG, We understand your perspective, but we’d like to reiterate that in the vast majority of cities artists do not need mural permits
      (Portland is a uniquely difficult situation due to a long legal battle with Clear Channel). In most cities, all artists need is owner-permission. Therefore, many people, including Cannon, do not even know that is something they need to consider. Additionally, the local mural/graffiti laws are confusing and difficult to navigate, even to those of us immersed in this situation. The Graffiti Task Force police can’t even get it straight. At minimum, Portland needs to revise its policy and provide a way to attain retro-active permits for owner-authorized murals, so these types of situations do not occur.

      • I’d be interested to see some background (citations) for the statement that the vast majority of cities don’t require permits. I find that surprising, so I’d love to see some back-up.

      • Thanks for the comment Emerald. Many of our alliance members are academics and want to be sure the information we provide to the public on this site is accurate and well-supported. To our knowledge, meta-data on city mural permitting has not been compiled anywhere for easy access. In the few cities that do have mural permits (Portland and Los Angeles), these are relatively new requirements (in the last 10 years). We do know that our big city neighbors to the north and south, Seattle and San Francisco, do not require mural permits (this information was attained by calling the city’s public art departments). It is difficult to cite this information, because if a city lacks a mural permit requirement, it’s not usually directly stated on their website that a permit is not needed, so it’s the absence of that information that we would be trying to cite. We have someone looking into this and will update the article as soon as we have references compiled.

  6. You blew it Portland. When you send away a visiting talented artist who is willing to beautify a wall FOR FREE with the agreement of the building owner you must realize it is time to look at the rules and regulations you are enforcing. Portland open for art? Not so much.

    All you need to do is look at our southern neighbor, Eugene, for a lesson how to embrace street art (http://www.oregonlive.com/living/index.ssf/2013/08/eugene_art_project_makes_light.html). If that is not enough for you check out the Mural Music and Arts Project in Palo Alto, or this document from the Police Department in Dallas, TX, endorsing an innovative graffiti art program (http://www.dallascityhall.com/committee_briefings/briefings0812/PS_DallasGraffitiArtsProject_081412.pdf).

    We all lost last week…..the residents of the Portland Metro area, the artists, AND the building owner. Wake up Portland. Let’s not miss out on another opportunity like this one.

  7. Portland is no longer the city I found stimulating and supportive of creativity. This is one more example of the changes that are turning Portland into a place that works against itself. I hope it is not on the way to becoming like one of those towns that lose what makes its character and, in the process, becomes just another place without spirit. I lived there for many years, live in New England now, and miss very much the dynamic Portland I remember. But I am not sure that Portland even exists any more. Everytime I visit, everytime I talk to someone, there seems to be one more thing that takes Portland down a rung. It saddens me deeply. That mural that Portland just threw away was beautiful, a gem of art. What a waste of city resources and of an opportunity to celebrate art and beauty– all in the name of pointless bureaucracy, which seems to be the direction that Portland is heading. Cleveland went there, and is now trying to get back.

  8. An open letter to the Portland Business Alliance on the potential benefits of street art on local tourism

    Dear PBA,

    It has come to my attention that last week that a young, reputable artist from San Francisco was beginning to paint a mural on the exterior of a building in inner Southeast Portland when he was interrupted by the PPB. Two officers stopped and questioned him until the building owner arrived and clarified that the artist had his permission to paint the side of the building. At this point the officers allowed the artist to continue his work briefly until he was again interrupted by PPB, this time by Graffiti Investigator Anthony Zanetti. Zanetti who said the mural had to be immediately removed or a citation and fine would be issued to the property owner. At this point the artist had to remove the beginning of his work leaving a gray and white blob of paint in its place.1

    I am contacting you as I am keenly aware of your interest in the promotion of Portland’s tourism sector. PBA has proudly forced legislation forward to push homeless people from the streets and sidewalks and into the shadows and under the bridges, and to stop the addition of bike lanes to preserve ample space for tourism parking. I am hoping that you will be as enthused to help lobby City Hall to change these overbearing regulations which punish property and business owners.

    The mural artist mentioned before was Cannon Dill. Cannon Dill is an internationally recognized artist from San Francisco who does mural, street, and gallery art. Cannon Dill is also affiliated with Urban Renewal: a Crowd Funded Public Art Project2. His website politely declines any invitations for new shows stating he is currently overbooked.3

    Can you imagine what a piece of art by Cannon Dill could do to boost tourism in Portland. Imagine if we not only welcomed Cannon, but all artists to do owner-approved murals as they pleased. Many other cities follow this procedure and find it to be no business of the police to regulate art or how people should choose to decorate their businesses or homes. Portland is making an exception to allow the Forest for the Trees mural project to town this week. Yet, police and city hall threaten other artists for not obtaining a permit ahead of time.

    You may be further disturbed to know that the same Officer Zanetti has also impeded other business by shutting down the Samo Lives art gallery in August of 2011 for hosting an art show. Zanetti seems to be making a routine of crossing the PPB’s own number one rule to preventing graffiti which is protecting local mural projects.4

    Please let me know how much resources you are willing to put towards challenging this archaic law which is negatively affecting our tourism and penalizing property and business owners, while not representing the values of Portland’s creative culture. Particularly your good standing with the Portland Police Bureau and the City Council will be helpful in this matter. Once we get City Hall and PPB to get out of the way of artists, we can next focus on getting them to support and pay for art such as our neighbor city Eugene, as well as Santa Cruz, Seattle, and Little Rock.5 Other cities such as Dallas, Toronto, Phoenix, and Venice use programs that would allow artists to have designated approved areas for street art as an offering at reducing street art in unwanted areas6. Bogota even offers graffiti bike tours.7 I would propose that taking any of the above steps would allow the PPB to focus their time and energy elsewhere, while also making Portland a more beautiful, creative, and welcoming city to tourists and residents alike.

    Looking forward to your partnership on this endeavor,

    Joel Sjerven

  9. Police are referred to as LEO’s or Law Enforcement Officers for a reason, because their sole responsibility is to enforce the law. Not make the laws, not interpret them, but enforce them.

    Officer Zanetti overstepped his authority as a police officer. He can issue a citation for a violation, and should the citation be ignored he can follow up as the law permits, whether that be issuing additional citations with heavier fines, or arresting the potential violator, but he has no authority to interpret the law, pass sentence, or establish remedy. In other words, he did not have the authority to order the immediate removal of the mural.

  10. Why is there a war on street art in Portland? Look at the racial demographics and find your answer.

  11. Did the people in the neighborhood want that art there? Were they asked? Shouldn’t the people that live in the neighborhood have a say so in what is considered “art” where they live? If the proper procedures were taken, the neighbors would have known about it and gotten behind it. But they didn’t have that chance thanks to a property owner that felt he knew what neighbors wanted and an artist that held so much self-importance that he felt it didn’t matter. THG, you are absolutely correct that if they followed all the appropriate procedures, there wouldn’t have been any problems.

    • The current City of Portland mural permitting program does require a neighborhood meeting, however, the artist is not bound by any design standards or required to change their design plans at the request of neighborhood residents. The meeting is just meant to be ‘notification’ that a mural is going to be painted. If the artist wants too, they can incorporate suggestions from people, but they do not have to. From the City’s perspective all they care about is whether or not it is a mural or a sign. Advertisement companies do not have to check with neighbors before putting up a sign or billboard either.

      On the flip-side of this, graffiti abatement does not consult with neighborhood residents before they buff community art (or graffiti). There is currently no avenues (no retro-active permitting or petitions) the community can use to stop a piece of un-permitted art that they like from being painted over by abatement.

      Yes, you are correct, this situation could have been avoided if the artist (or the property owner) attained a permit, but in this situation they did not know a permit was needed. In most cities, all you need is owner-permission. Many people even in Portland do not know a permit is required to paint a mural. To our knowledge, the City has not done any public outreach education.

  12. This situation and your article will help to educate folks about the mural regulations.

    Portland’s neighborhood associations are set up to act as a liaison between the city and the residents in a neighborhood. Its this way to allow for more public input. I venture to say that if residents agreed that a particular piece of un-permitted art should be spared from the abatement program, the neighborhood association can coordinate with graffiti abatement to preserve it. Additionally, the association can help the project identify potential grants and non-profits that can fund these installations. My point is that it may be easier to ask forgiveness instead of get permission but getting permission (buy-in) from the neighbors can actually make the process easier for the artist.

    • Thanks Moses, working with neighborhood associations is a great suggestion, especially for local mural artists who are here and can do that. Community support goes a long way! One of my concerns is also that graffiti abatement does not notify anyone that they plan to paint over a piece, they often just do it (especially when its on public or abandoned property). By the time the public finds out about it (let alone collectively act on it), it is often too late.

  13. I hate it when laws designed with good intentions are used against the citizens they’re made to protect. The owner of that business should be able to decorate the side of their building in any fashion they please. It shouldn’t matter the medium of art.

  14. I’m outraged as a former Portland resident and as an artist/curator who has constantly strived to support positive creative street art as an alternative to typical tagging and actually destructive, un-approved graffiti. It WAS NOT commercial signage, which has inherent regulations, but an ART PROJECT which, short of safety issues, should not require “legal approvals”.and other forms of thinly disguised censorship.

  15. Cannon Dill is an amazing artist and muralist. He came from Oakland this spring to Denver and painted a mural on an exterior wall of our business. Since creating his mural our building and neighbor hood has improved for the better. We have seen a drop in petty crime and our walls have not been vandalized once. His mural has been recognized in the national arts media and has lead to other national and local artists being given greater creative freedom to execute murals in Denver. Portland could learn a thing or three from Cannon Dill and Denver’s example.

  16. I love the term ‘gang related graffiti’ The same term that should be used for politicians and ad agencies that spew their bullshit around in public spaces in most cases not completely agreed upon by the general public.

  17. It’s funny to me the people of Portland are always met with a huge inturuption from ppd they happen to be some of the worst police in the us and it’s only gotten worse over the years. They have a hatred for minority’s I have my self heard them refer to blacks as N****** and as a security officer hear them refer to every minority as a gang banger. It’s getting out of hand and some thing needs to be done.

  18. Booooooooooooooo!!!!!! Art haters!!! I feel that artist’s pain. I recently made a mural on a big wall that’s on the side of a business, the customer and his wife whom rent on a private piece of land were extremely satisfied with the art that took me three days under the sun to finish, when suddenly, the landlord said it had to be covered because it was offensive… ( shaking my head)

  19. Pingback: Graffiti and Activism: Unmediated Access & Communication in Space | Portland Street Art Alliance·

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