Graffiti – Art or Visual Vandalism?

By Don MacGillivray


While some graffiti shows artistic talent all of it is considered vandalism. Perhaps, more importantly it is criminal behavior that is expensive to repair. Generally, modern graffiti is only about 50 years old and is facilitated by access to cans of spray paint and other modern implements.

Graffiti “artists” can start as early as the age of ten, but the average age is twenty.  Women are also involved with this behavior. They are often school dropouts that suffer from anger, aggression, and are in need of attention. Youth at risk and without help can become an even greater hazard to themselves and to society.  Generally two thirds of the those responsible for graffiti just do it for personal reasons. While 21% are art students about 14% belong to gangs.

Graffiti in Portland comes in 5 basic types: Tagger, Gang, Communication, Hate, and Art.  “Tagger” graffiti is the most prevalent type in Portland.  It may be simple line-letters, or elaborate colorful designs, or “throw-ups.” Most of the Taggers arrested in Portland are not juveniles. The median age for Taggers is twenty years of age. Some taggers aspire to be recognized for their “Art.”  They create larger, showier “pieces” that may include a graphic moniker in their design. Gang graffiti will identify a local gang in the area and it is growing in the Portland region. It is a way for gangs to communicate with each other and mark their territory. Most of the gang graffiti currently seen in Portland is done by Hispanic or Latino gangs or their wanna-be’s.

Graffiti vandals are arrested at an average rate of three per week. By reporting and accurately documenting the “Tags”, community members help the police build strong cases that will result in convictions. In most cases the subject is found guilty of criminal mischief, fined appropriately, and often sentenced to 100 hours of community service. If possible, they also can be required to pay restitution for the damage. For serious offenders or those with multiple offenses the fines can be over $1,000 and they can be sentenced to do time in jail.

If your property is vulnerable to graffiti vandalism contact your neighborhood Crime Prevention Coordinator for assistance in making your property more vandal proof. The Graffiti Abatement Coordinators in southeast are part of the Crime Prevention team. They are Katherine Anderson and Jacob Brostoff and they can be contacted by calling 503.823.4000 and asking for them by name.

Also report graffiti to the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, Graffiti Hotline at 503.823.4824 or call the police non-emergency number at 503.823.3333 (weekends or holidays)  Graffiti  can also be reported on the City of Portland webpage at

Graffiti must be removed from private property by painting it out or removing it with the solvent in the graffiti removal kits  available at Fire Stations. In southeast these are available at: Station #7 on SE 122nd Avenue, Station #12 on NE Sandy Blvd, Station #25 on SE Mall Street.

At the program manager’s discretion one-time free removal, or shared-cost removal may be available to property owners, depending on the circumstances. (However, free graffiti removal services will not be available due to budget reductions until further notice.) Owner-occupied residential properties,  non-profit organizations, or small business properties can call for assistance at: 503.823.5860.

Graffiti removal services are available from several companies at the owners expense. The names of several of these businesses are: DiAngelo Brothers, Cody Barham,; Graffiti Removal Services Robert Barrie,; Recology (Cleanscapes),; and Glass Magnum Gary Cayton,

Portland’s Graffiti Task Force meets every month to share information and coordinate their activities. It is made up of the public agencies involved in graffiti vandalism abatement including law enforcement representatives and district attorneys. The meetings are held in the morning and are open to the public.

Many people just chalk graffiti up to being part of Portland’s weirdness. While it may add to the interesting ambiance of the city it is unwelcome by those who must repair it. It is also a sign that our young adults are in need of help.

“Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder”.         Plato


Graffiti – Art or Visual Vandalism?

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