Last May, Mayor Ted Wheeler issued an emergency declaration aimed at cleaning up the city. This includes dealing with trash, illegal dumping and graffiti. While the city council recently voted on sending out more graffiti cleaners, businesses are struggling with weekly tagging and advocates are looking for more equitable solutions. As a part of our series on Portland graffiti, Dakota Thompson, the deputy director of community safety for Portland, joins us to share graffiti trends in the city and plans to address it in the future.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller. We start today with the next installment of our series of conversations about graffiti in Portland. Over the last week, we’ve been talking about street art and tagging and vandalism. We’ve heard from a business owner who cleans up graffiti outside her store every single week. And we talked to an advocate who’s pushing for more legal opportunities for street artists. We turn now to what the city is doing. Dakota Thompson is Portland’s Deputy Director of Community Safety. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Dakota Thompson: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.
Miller: How would you describe the city’s current graffiti problem?
Thompson: I think a fair way to describe it is large. Certainly, you can’t go many blocks without seeing graffiti somewhere and that is why we’re spending as much time and energy as we are trying to contract with cleaning services and to partner with private businesses to help them get their storefronts cleaned up. So, yes, it’s definitely a large problem.
Miller: How many reports have come into the city, say over the last year?
Thompson: Well, definitely hundreds. Some of the cleaning is not necessarily attached to a report, a specific ticket so that question doesn’t necessarily get the totality of it, but it is hundreds and hundreds. We have had, I’m trying to think, with respect to the tickets that come in about private businesses, easily over 400, and then that has translated into over 4000 different items, meters, signs or sidewalks that have been cleaned. So one ticket is not necessarily a single thing. It’ll be a picture of an area and then we’ll send out our crews to go clean that entire little section.
Miller: If the tickets aren’t the best numerical way to even chart, is it what square footage cleaned up? How do you numerically have a sense for what the problem is and what the cleanup effort has entailed?
Thompson: So, square footage is definitely the primary way we conceptualize how much and what we’re doing. Because our program is really divided between a responsive program to private business and helping them with their buildings and their storefronts, that sort of thing and a more public space, public walls, public sidewalks, that sort of thing. With respect to the private side of it, we’ve spent roughly $172,000 over the past year going and cleaning that up. And that is translated to about 80,000 square feet of cleaned up graffiti just in that part of the program.
Miller: That’s just the private part?
Miller: 80,000 square feet? And then there’s the public side?
Thompson: Right. And when you take that into account, the number really balloons. We’re above 900,000 square feet. Since the cleanup began in the pandemic in July 2021 and we’re kind of coming out of it, that’s where we’re at: A little over 900,000 square feet.
Miller: So added together that’s close to a million square feet, scrubbed or repainted?
Miller: Has the pandemic affected the numbers? Can you actually officially say that there’s been an increase in graffiti since the pandemic started?
Thompson: Yes, absolutely/ I feel very comfortable saying that the lockdown and the pandemic contributed to a really just a ballooning number of tags of graffiti across the city. I’d be hard pressed to say that that wasn’t a connection that there wasn’t a causal connection there.
Miller: Where is graffiti most likely? Obviously we can see it all over, but where is it more likely?
Thompson: Right. I think this kind of flows into that previous question. It’s where people aren’t looking and where it’s easy to do it quickly because there’s not any light on that spot or there’s not the foot traffic so you can run up to that wall and tag it; and, there’s not as many people around to kind of do that social aspect of someone’s watching me, I don’t want to do that, which I think is part of why it ballooned in COVID. Right? We had everybody in their homes, that foot traffic is certainly reduced, all sorts of traffic and, yeah, it definitely contributed in, in that aspect.
Miller: If those are some of the reasons for the increase in graffiti because of the pandemic as, as we get out of the public health emergency and as public life in so many ways returns to its pre-pandemic version, are you expecting some of this to just take care of itself naturally? Meaning are you expecting graffiti to lessen even if you don’t do anything?
Thompson: No, I don’t think we are. Our perspective is that we’ve got to be proactive and we have to get our crews out there to help the kind of public space take itself back. So I think the answer is no, we don’t expect it to just solve itself. The city is trying to be very proactive. We’re devoting an appropriate amount of funds to this cleanup effort.
Miller: Do you think that cleaning up graffiti prevents more graffiti or just leads to more graffiti or is that the wrong way to think about it? I’m imagining that part of the excitement about illegally tagging something–maybe that’s redundant–is putting your mark on some space, if that’s cleaned up, I guess, I can imagine that you would just want to do it again.
Thompson: I think that is often the sentiment but all the same when you, if you clean just one spot and a wall of graffiti, yes, that spot is going to be re-tagged very quickly if you clean the entire wall or maybe the entire block and that business or that area now has this kind of space back then it’s less likely. So the more work we do, the less likely that kind of proliferation is going to continue. But that is a part of the challenge. You can go paint over some spots and in the quiet of the night, someone may come back and tag it again.
Miller: The city council recently voted to increase funding for graffiti cleaners. So that’s part of its goals for this year. How much more money could be coming in?
Thompson: Well, that remains to be seen exactly how much we’re going to be devoting in the upcoming budget. With respect to how much we spent to give you an idea of what we’re talking about, roughly $1.8 million dollars has been spent over the past year and a half with respect to graffiti cleanup across all the different parts of the program. So some of our contractors kind of take surveys of how much they’re removing, how much was present before they started the contract. And they report enormous reductions in the total number of tags in one part of the city where they’ve been working. So that 1.84 million certainly has made an impact. But it’s been targeted and that’s really how we’ve operated is to try and be responsive to what the community is telling us as a problem spot for them. And we do that through problem solving meetings that are geographically located through the public environmental management offices, efforts there. So easily that much could be spent to try and continue combating this problem.
Miller: So we’ve really so far been focusing on the responses to graffiti to clean up, but there’s also the question of prevention or enforcement. How does enforcement work right now?
Thompson: So we’re talking about police interaction and efforts on that front. And then we’re also talking about kind of getting buy-in from the private industry here with like, hey, you know, we have this program to help you remove the graffiti because we are in this together. We understand that it’s really difficult for small business owners to devote their time and their funds to removing a tag off the side of the building they’re renting or happen to own. So that’s part of it. And we think that is a type of enforcement in that when we have someone who’s not really participating in that kind of, hey, we’re gonna give you the resources to take care of this or we need you to sign a waiver so that we can come onto your property with our crews and just do it for free, we will send an abatement letter.
Miller: So if I understand correctly, you’re not blaming some small business owner, but it seems like what you’re saying is for property owners or business owners who don’t quickly clean up tags, you’re saying that can make the problem overall worse?
Thompson: Yes. And I think that logic applies across the board. It’s not just on the business owners, it’s on all of us to assist. And that’s why we have a program that doesn’t charge them anything, right? We’re sending out our crews as long as we get the appropriate waivers and can step onto their property to clean that up. We just, we need them to help us with that. The other part of the enforcement is certainly law enforcement and how they handle the investigations. It’s targeted, it is a very deliberate, long-form version of investigation to make sure that the most prolific taggers or graffiti artists, how ever you want to describe them, are being isolated and focused on as opposed to just a kind of blanket enforcement approach.
Miller: Earlier this week we heard about the push for free walls, places where street art or graffiti would be allowed and encouraged. What do you think of that idea?
Thompson: I think it’s interesting. The perspective that we have is that nothing is off the table, if it’s a potential solution. And that’s really the beginning point for all of these conversations. With free walls, there’s conflicting information about how much it works as an enforcement or deterrent. It may very well just promote an entire block as a place. We have one section that’s the free wall, but all of a sudden everywhere else is getting hit. But again, if it presents itself as a solution in a specific area then we will absolutely consider that and work with the various partners in the community. We have to help make that space public space. Portland has some amazing murals and street art and if we can contribute to that part of the Portland identity, we’re all on board. But I do draw a line between what we’re talking about in terms of art and some of the other stuff that we’re trying very hard to clean up.
Miller: Have you found that places that have murals or some version of sanctioned art, are those places less likely to be tagged than a blank wall?
Thompson: Anecdotally, I will say yes. I think that there is a sense that there is art there. We’re not, we’re not going to paint over and disrupt what was a beautiful piece of art that someone spent a lot of their time and their expertise creating for the community. Or at least,
I hope that that’s the mentality of why those spaces don’t get tagged as often. I don’t think it’s a universal thing. I think there’s definitely murals around town that do get hit, but it seems to me and from the anecdotal experience I have working with our crews and community members that, yeah, that makes a big difference.
Miller: In terms of your “everything is on the table” idea, is there any effort right now to not to increase free walls but to just put more murals around so the city is both more interesting visually and maybe less attractive for people who want to tag it?
Thompson: I can say that during my discussions with PEMO, Public Environmental Management Office, that frequently we are discussing, if a space is where a mural makes sense? It doesn’t have to be a wall or a garage door to one of the buildings downtown. Is a mural going to help us beautify this space and kind of activate in a way that doesn’t promote the sort of unsanctioned problematic tagging that plagues other parts of the city?
Miller: Dakota Thompson, thanks very much.
Thompson: Thank you.
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