"I don't ever pretend to know what it's like to be a tagger" — she only tags on blackboards — but wants to preserve the art so it's not lost. "There are wonderful pieces of art around here . . . but then they disappear," she says, so in an effort to counter that, she takes long walks around different parts of town every week to photograph what she sees.

She has noticed a number of fascinating elements of the street-art community in Portland. "They talk to each other around the city," she says, leaving notes asking "who's this?" near a new tag, or incorporating elements in new creations that echo nearby pieces by other artists.

Letter shapes, and color, and medium (marker, paint, etc.) are part of their language, giving knowledgeable viewers and scene insiders messages about who drew what.

Like in other cities, marking a particularly visible or hard-to-get-to area (such as high up on a building) is a declaration of prowess, but Thomas noted that Maine street artists have other challenges. Back in December, she was out taking photos in a blizzard, and saw a tag that called attention to when it was made: "Blizzard bombing," it read.

In the past six months, she has noticed more labels and stickers going up around the city, works people draw at home and just slap up somewhere as they're walking by. She theorizes that is part a reaction to a pending city crackdown (see "Outlawing Art?") and part desire to do more intricate pieces in a less-risky way.

Thomas is definitely appreciative of the efforts of local street artists: "It adds to the layers of things we have in the city to look at," she says. And she observes that the Portland Museum of Art held an event earlier this year focused on local graffiti and street artists.

Outlawing art?

After years of a moderate tolerance to graffiti artists, Portland officials are reconsidering that approach. The city council's Public Safety Committee has proposed increasing the punishments for graffiti artists. That has brought thinly veiled threats from the street-art community of retribution by increased activity.

A second controversial element of the proposal would fine property owners who do not clean up if their buildings are tagged. That has led to objections from people who worry that they might be "victimized twice" — once by graffiti, and a second time by the city enforcing the clean-it-up law.

The proposal would also ban the sale of "graffiti tools," such as markers and spray-paint cans, to minors. Aubin Thomas notes that might be missing the point: "All of the graffiti artists and taggers I know are not minors."

>> READ: "Cambridge author Caleb Neelon traces graffiti’s hidden history" by Greg Cook <<

While proponents say tagging would be discouraged if it were removed quickly, that's less certain in an art form whose very nature assumes, and even embraces, temporary display.

Eli Cayer suggests that fighting graffiti is best done Montreal-style, where the city hosts international events celebrating street art and "the whole downtown is tattooed, almost, with graffiti."

"I want to live in a city where I see more of the productions" — larger, artistic pieces — he says. "Not everybody does, I can appreciate that, (but) just because you don't like it doesn't mean it doesn't deserve respect."

Cayer cites as an example the new mural at Joe's Smoke Shop on Congress Street as a successful contribution of art to the community that also deters graffiti: "Joe's gets bombed all the time, and it's not going to now."

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Related: Odd year ahead for museums and galleries, Review: 'European Drawings' at the Portland Museum of Art, State of the arts, More more >
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