This article originally appeared in the August 5, 2009 edition of the Portland Observer.
Restrictive rules washed away
The Portland Observer
About a dozen people have gathered around a wall at Northeast Hancock Street and Seventh Avenue for the last few weeks trying to breathe life into a dead wall.
Robin Corbo, a local artist, is leading a team of trainees from the Portland Opportunities Industrial Center to create a mural on the western wall of the dialysis clinic housing the Multicultural Integrated Kidney Education Program.
The trainees, all in their early 20s, balance paper plates holding dollops of paint as they carefully add color to the multicultural mural which is intended to promote healthy lifestyles.
“Art sparks joy in people. It’s changing their environment and landscape,” said Corbo, whose work includes the Community Cycling Center’s mural among others, adding that drivers passing by often honk their horns in approval.
Human beings have been painting walls ever since they could hold a stick with a glob of colored goop. But In Portland, litigation over how the city treats commercial speech squelched murals for nearly a decade.
Now with the lawsuit resolved for the time being and a revision in the city code that went into effect last week, the city is on the verge of seeing more murals like the one dotting the local clinic.
Compared to other cities, Portland has distinct lack of murals, which can be attributed to an 11-year-old lawsuit brought against it by Clear Channel.
The worldwide owner of billboard advertising and other media took issue with how Portland placed restrictions on billboards, while leaving murals largely unfettered. It filed a lawsuit arguing that the regulations on billboards unfairly discriminated against commercial speech.
Portland lost the lawsuit, which meant that it had to apply the same rules to murals as it did to billboards.
Since then, murals faced the same restrictions as billboards, and any artist wanting to paint a mural had to pony up a prohibitively expensive $1,400 permitting fee.
The Mirador Store, a retail outlet that specializes in natural cookware, unintentionally entered the mural fracas when it commissioned a mural to be painted on its garage doors facing Division Street that featured an amorphous blue figure dancing against a lush Oregon-like backdrop.
In 2003, after the mural had been up for a year, it received a citation from the city instructing them to take down their “sign” or be fined $50 a day.
The citation spurred an outpouring of outrage, which caused the city to back down.
However, another citation in 2004 prompted the owners to nail several orange boards over most of the mural.
The next year, City Council found an imperfect loophole for murals by making them city property.
Under the program, the Regional Arts and Culture Council approved and funded murals with local businesses agreeing to have an easement placed on the wall used for the artwork, making it technically public property.
“It’s been pretty successful,” said City Planner Phil Nameny of the program, which has sponsored about 25 murals over the past few years.
However, the setup didn’t work in every situation. Many businesses were uncomfortable with the strings attached and mural approval could take months.
“The city was acting as a patron, rather than a regulator,” said Joe Cotter, a local artist who played a crucial role in the city’s lawsuit with Clear Channel.
In 2005, while the suit was being appealed, Cotter filed another suit as an intervener, arguing that murals and commercial signs should be treated as legally distinct.
Judge Michael Marcus agreed, which paved the way for city’ latest mural program.
Under the new program murals have to be hand painted, last more than five years, can’t extend above the building’s second floor, and generate no rent or revenue. The permitting fee is $250.
Mural advocates say this is a positive development, but still want fewer regulations, pointing out that murals stave off blight while brining art to masses.
“It’s better than doing graffiti,” said George Martinez, who is working on the mural at the MIKE Program building. “It gets the community involved.”