A mural of Breonna Taylor in between the words "No Justice No Peace."
Photo by Venus Edlin

Public art thrives on boarded-up storefronts

Despite the relatively quiet summer on campus following Lewis & Clark’s closure in March, downtown Portland has been thriving with activity. Local artists have transformed boarded-up storefronts into incredible murals, with many of them drawing attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

In March, many stores decided to erect plywood barriers in front of their businesses while they were inactive during the beginning of the new coronavirus pandemic. Almost every storefront in Pioneer Place was boarded up in order to prevent vandalism and break-ins while vacant. Nationwide demand for racial justice and opposition against the police has led to an increase in public art, especially on these large expanses of plywood.

Amaranta Colindres, @curlieturtle on Instagram, is a Black and Indigenous artist who graduated from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Colindres has found some benefits from the protective plywood barriers.

“The good thing about COVID-19 and the businesses with the boarded up walls is that according to Portland, if I am painting a temporary wall, which is plywood screwed in over a door, no permit is required, no red tape,” Colindres said. “A business owner hands me some money, I paint the wall, I get the money, I pay my bills, everybody is happy and I thrive as an artist.”

Portland just approved Colindres to paint her first wall in the city two months after she applied. She wants Portland to revisit its public art policies in light of these events. Colindres said many artists she knows have been able to pick up more work because of the plywood work-around.

Colindres said that everyone has the inherent right to enjoy public art.

“Public spaces should be accessible,” Colindres said. “Because I’m also Indigenous and in Indigenous culture, the air does not belong to anybody, the rivers do not belong to anybody; they are for everybody, the same way a wall should be enjoyed by everybody.”

As Colindres specified, some store owners have paid for artists to paint the plywood attached to their buildings. However, a significant portion of the work has not been authorized by businesses, though it has significantly reduced the presence of tagging in the Pioneer Place area. The plywood was already heavily tagged before the murals were painted.

Xochilt Ruvalcaba, @xochilt.art on Instagram, has also studied fine art and mainly works as a screen-printer. As a Mexican woman, she felt compelled to stand against racism with her art.

“I had planned to do my own pop-up mural on 34th and Clinton in the middle of the night and I was probably going to get cited,” Ruvalcaba said. “I told my boss and she said not to do it, that you are going to get arrested.”

Instead, her boss insisted that Ruvalcaba paint the front of her restaurant, Mother’s Bistro and Bar. Ruvalcaba painted portraits of seven Black children who have died at the hands of police. A few sentences describing the circumstances of each child’s death accompany the portraits.

“These kids were killed for doing normal things: playing in parks, going to parties, sitting in the car, sleeping in their living room,” Ruvalcaba said. “These kids are doing normal shit that kids do and they get killed for it. Why? Because they are Black.”

During the two and a half weeks it took Ruvalcaba to paint the mural, she faced consistent racist harassment. One man nearly started a fight with her and her husband, who was there to help her paint. A tagger destroyed two of the child portraits which have since been repainted. Also, due to the downtown presence of the Proud Boys, a far-right organization labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, she felt unsafe.

“It was hard for me in the final moments because I felt like I had to leave these kids again to be hurt because two of the portraits were already vandalized,” Ruvalcaba said. “I was so angry because even in these children’s deaths, they are not loved.”

However, one interaction proved that her work could indeed effect change. Ruvalcaba saw a child read one of the stories, despite dismay from both of their parents. After meeting resistance, the child kept reading.

“The next three that he read, he read out loud. He read every single one, word for word, out loud with his mom about four steps behind him,” Ruvalcaba said. “You could tell that the parents did not support the Black Lives Matter movement for whatever reason, but I was watching him gain knowledge of what happened to these children and I was watching her having to participate with him.” 

Colindres also felt urged to act when she heard about the protests downtown. She believes artists play an important part in social movements as observers and documenters. 

“The role of an artist is to tell the story of history, so right now we are just expressing what is going on in the atmosphere,” Colindres said. “Also, we are trying to open people’s hearts to the fact that it is unjust to hurt people just because of how tan they are.”

The brightly painted landscape of downtown has also led to more business for independent vendors. Donald “G” Patterson has been selling T-shirts with pro-Black Lives Matter designs in front of the Apple store in Pioneer Place. He worked with a team of artists to design and produce the tees. For Patterson, it is an opportunity to promote the movement, educate people and make money in the process.

“A lot of people want to be part of the protests, but they do not want to be on the battlefield for whatever reason,” Patterson said. “They want to do their part, so they want to come get a shirt and represent Black Lives Matter and everyone who lost their lives to the crooked police.”

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