Street art and graffiti populate the Alberta Arts District

Photo by Justin Howerton

The Alberta Arts District in Northeast Portland stands as a haven for street and graffiti artists. Despite the prohibition of graffiti in Portland, many businesses in this area of the city have commissioned or allowed street artists to paint their walls. This is part of a larger community effort to increase accessibility to artwork because it is difficult for many folks to interact with art consistently due to entrance fees to galleries among other factors. Moreover, the assumption that only certain people can enjoy certain art still restricts many potential who might be interested. In other words, those unfamiliar with more “high-brow” artistic pieces may feel anxious or timid about viewing a piece in the same space with more “cultured” patrons.

Photo by Justin Howerton

Street art eliminates any notion of high or low art.  Both street and graffiti artists make art available to anyone and everyone, thereby disrupting the often stuffy and judgmental atmosphere of “high-brow” galleries. Although graffiti embodies a more covert, subversive offshoot of street art, and it can be confusing to distinguish the two. To clarify, both express creativity in public spaces, but while street art typically requires approval from the city or business, graffiti artists do not ask permission when going about their work.

Portland has a rich history of street art beginning in the 1980s. One street art group in particular, Gorilla Wallflare, took it upon themselves to reclaim Portland’s walls without permission after their formation in 1982. Courageous yet furtive, they often painted in broad daylight and have created some of the most iconic murals in the city, specifically the “Art Fills the Void!” mural on SE 12th and Division. Numerous organizations such as these have been created in recent years.

Much of the street art in the Alberta Arts district have similar themes, one of the most common being self-care or self-interest. The writing on one mural in particular tells the viewer to “Keep Your Head Up,” while another claims that “You are defined only by the walls you build.” Other murals promote social activism through their contents. The “Malcom X” mural located on 17th and Alberta depicts the eponymous black activist in a striking portrait with figures, seemingly fellow activists, occupying the left side of the wall. Although graffiti and street art are not necessarily in competition, occasionally graffiti artists will cover up murals with their signatures, otherwise known in the community as “tags.” Often graffiti artists will paint a sort of repeating symbol or name on individual walls, which can bolster their reputation among the community. You can see this trend in the two graffiti pieces seen to the right.

Photo by Justin Howerton

However, what all of these murals have in common is their devotion to building community in the area through public art. Severing the distinction between what is considered worthy of public consumption as opposed to private consumption, this district exemplifies some of the best street art that Portland has to offer. If you are interested, you can visit the Portland Street Art Alliance’s website for more information.

Photo by Justin Howerton

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