Photo by Tor Parsons

PSU debuts charming, if gimmicky, Toon Tour

In an effort to draw people back to their downtown Portland campus for COVID-safe activities, Portland State University (PSU) has launched an art project known as the “Toon Tour.” Described on the PSU website as a “delightful treasure hunt,” the Toon Tour consists of 24 life-size cardboard cutouts scattered throughout the campus. The cutouts, created by local artist Mike Bennett, depict goofy, often grinning caricatures of people, animals and things related to Portland and Oregon. 

One of these caricatures, as would be expected, is Bigfoot, lurking in the window of the Academic and Student Recreation Center. There are also cartoons of salmon, bicycles, roses, anthropomorphized umbrellas and streetcars. The tour even features a larger-than-life representation of Brian Kidd, also known as the Unipiper, who has become a symbol of Portland weirdness by performing popular movie themes on a bagpipe while riding a unicycle and wearing a Darth Vader costume.

A guide to the Toon Tour on the PSU website describes where to find each cartoon, as well as brief details on why the subject of each cartoon is quintessentially Oregonian. Corny jokes attempt to tenuously connect the cartoon to the building it is located in. 

For an anthropomorphic Douglas fir in the Urban Center Building, for instance, the virtual guide deadpans, “Douglas firs can live to be 1,000 years old, which is about the same age as our College of Urban and Public Affairs.”

Later on, it explains why Bigfoot is among the cartoons. They make the seemingly serious observation, “Cryptozoologists say that nearly 1/3 of reported sightings of Bigfoot were within hours of the Portland State campus,” hedging the difficult-to-check claim with a deliberately vague measurement of distance. “Within hours of the campus?” How many hours?

Due to the online guide, the Toon Tour is not much of a treasure hunt. The cartoons are usually located in windows next to each building’s main entrance with a QR code next to them linking to the guide. 

However, a few are more difficult to find: a hop plant, symbolizing Oregon’s beer industry, sits in a high window at Shattuck Hall, the building where the Pioneer Express stops downtown, looking down at passersby with a queasy-looking face.

A majority of the text in the online guide, though, is devoted to the buildings themselves and their features, revealing the not-so-secret real reason for the Toon Tour: to recruit new students to PSU. With guided campus tours impacted by the pandemic, PSU likely devised the Toon Tour as an alternative method of attracting prospective students to visit campus and building interest in the school. The QR code next to each cartoon offers viewers the chance to take a virtual tour of the building where the cartoon stands, and also invites anyone who scans the code to fill out a PSU admission application.

The Toon Tour is ultimately a gimmick, rather than an activity, but it is a fairly original gimmick. The involvement of local Portland artists is sure to win PSU plaudits from Portland’s thriving street art scene, and the cartoons certainly make the PSU campus more colorful and interesting. Where else can people see Bigfoot standing across the street from a bagpiper dressed as Darth Vader?

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