A look at Portland's graffiti history

City walls
By JEFF INGLIS  |  April 5, 2011

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Back in the early '90s, Eli Cayer had just finished art school in Boston and headed to Maine, where he continued creating street art. In a scene then heavy on "throw-ups," tags with an artist's nickname in stylized letters, Cayer had another approach. "Instead of going to do throw-ups, I'd just do faces."

In the mid- to late '90s, Cayer was a busy, visible street artist in Portland. But one night, he recalls, he was arrested while leaving a nightclub. He spent the night in jail, and was later sentenced to a week behind bars.  

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

The experience set him on a course to create legal opportunities for graffiti artists and other street artists to show off their wares. Promoting work "inspired by the street, inspired by the youth, inspired by emerging cultures," Cayer organized events — including an "Urban Earth Day" celebration — that included spray-painting activities as part of the entertainment. He wanted people to "recognize it as a legitimate art form," he says.

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That led to contact with city workers, in both the community-policing and parks-and-recreation departments, which in turn connected him with officials at the Portland Water District's East End Wastewater Treatment Facility. As Cayer described how murals, particularly those influenced by street art, can actually "graffiti-proof" a wall (by showcasing the work of prominent artists younger taggers will be reluctant to paint over), an idea took hold: the outside wall of the sewage plant could be a place for graffiti artists to do their work legally.

The idea was that vandalism would decrease if the city would just "allow the artistic side of it, encourage it even" by providing places for people to practice and engage with street art, Cayer says.

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He says that containing or institutionalizing graffiti doesn't necessarily change the nature of the art — and if it does, it does so organically, rather than forcing the change on the artist. "The hard-core writer, even given the opportunity to do a (legal) jam, it's not going to change what he's doing on the street," Cayer says. But others might take an opportunity to expand their expression while also reducing legal risks. "It's almost the . . . equivalent of skateboarding," Cayer explains: "It's not organized, it's totally self-driven, it's what you make of it."

On June 4, 2002 — Cayer recalls the date easily — that section of the wall was unveiled at the same time as a newly opened section of the Eastern Promenade trail. Ever since, that space has been known as the "legal wall," where anyone can go and practice their art. For a time, he also helped coordinate the painting of the Asylum wall every year.

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

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Cayer, who is no longer active in the city's street art scene (though he stays in touch through MENSK, the arts-related non-profit he helps run), says he does see Portland's culture shifting somewhat from "exclusively spray-painting," to more varied types of street art. (That said, he notes that Portland's train-painters are very widely known: "I've seen Portland, Maine, trains in North Dakota" and Alabama.)

Aubin Thomas isn't a tagger or street artist either, but in the past year or so has turned into a chronicler of the ad-hoc art scene here, as what she calls "curator of images" at her Freezetagging blog (freezetagging.wordpress.com).

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