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"Keep it badder, PDX." Artful graffiti on Alberta Street. PDX is the airport identifier for Portland International Airport, and has been adopted as one of the many nicknames of the city.

“Keep it badder, PDX.” Artful graffiti on Alberta Street. PDX is the airport identifier for Portland International Airport, and has been adopted as one of the many nicknames of the city.

For some Middle School reason, I think using the word “art” as a verb is hilarious. As in, “Don’t interrupt, I’m arting.”

One of my inexplicable Crystal diversions is that I like to catalogue wall art. Many cities have murals and many cities have spectacular graffiti, and I am crazy about it. I am even won over by 3-D wall art, like parts of airplanes or cars built to look like they are jutting out, mosaic tiles that lift from the wall, and religious icons set into walls. I am impressed with this living art:

The living wall of a business on Alberta Street.

The living wall of a business on Alberta Street.

Last week I talked a friend into driving me around to look for wall murals to photograph. This morning, Andrew at Have Bag, Will Travel posted wall art and it was the push I needed to get my photos out to you all.

There is a street in Portland called Alberta Street, that has been building its reputation for 100 years. From the 1920s, Alberta Street was known as a place where inexpensive housing could be found, as well as bus and streetcar service to transport workers into the city. This reputation attracted many immigrants, and it also became the site of a massive relocation in the aftermath of a devastating flood in 1948 that wiped out a large Black American community. In the 1950s and again in the 1970s, public works projects leveled impoverished areas close to the city center and forced the people to relocate. Many of them crammed into the Alberta neighborhoods.

The people in this area have cultural influences that include German, African, Chinese, and Mexican.

The residents in this area have cultural influences that include German, African, Chinese, and Mexican.

One thing I particularly enjoy here is the variety of artists' styles.

One thing I particularly enjoy here is the variety of artists’ styles.

Crowding and poverty resulted in unrest. I was not in the area during the 1980s and 90s, but the reputation north Portland garnered for itself decades ago is still spread as fact by well-meaning neighbors in other parts of the city, in their attempts to help me learn the area. It was famous for gangs, drugs, and violence. At the same time, the Alberta residents put their collective feet down and said, “No more!” Always leaning heavily on the arts, a concerted effort of neighborhood improvements began, and was ultimately successful.

Inspirational as well as attractive.

Inspirational as well as attractive.

This one is tiny: perhaps 2 1/2 feet tall. It includes a micro-mural of Haystack Rock, on the Oregon Coast.

This one is tiny: perhaps 2 1/2 feet tall. It includes a micro-mural of Haystack Rock, on the Oregon Coast, shown in a recent post.

The artists are not only talented, but also engaged and aware of their impact on the community, which probably explains why so many sign their work.

The artists are not only talented, but also engaged and aware of their impact on the community, which probably explains why so many sign their work.

A new ramen house I will definitely return to with Tara.

A new ramen house I will definitely return to with Tara.

Today, as often happens in diverse neighborhoods all over this country, the hard work of community activists has paid off, and the wealthy weekend explorers from downtown have “discovered” Alberta. The street hosts organic groceries and free-range chicken, gourmet ice cream, and a 100% gluten-free bakery. The cultural diversity of the local entrepreneurs overlaid with new trendy shops draws an entirely new crowd and – I assume – new growing pains as property values soar and gentrification claws its way in.

The character, the activism, and the arts from the complicated and heroic history shine through on Alberta Street today. It is one of the best places in Portland to park your car, get out into the air and join the community.

{Credit to Alberta Main Street for the historical facts.}

{My collection of Portland wall art on Flickr.}

We talked for a long time to these enthusiastic young men who had raised their own money through donations from passers-by, and then took it upon themselves to paint over unattractive graffiti. There must be no better affirmation of community action than when young men make it their own project.

We talked for a long time to these enthusiastic young men who had raised their own money through donations from passers-by, and then took it upon themselves to paint over unattractive graffiti. There must be no better affirmation of community action than when young men make it their own project.

Here someone has salvaged an old Coke advertisement.

Here someone has salvaged an old Coke advertisement.

We share the same sun.

We share the same sun.

I get a total charge out of this one. The artwork makes me think of Mayan writing on columns. I can't tell if it was intentional, but each column is stacked "on top" of the recycling bins.

I get a total charge out of this one. The artwork makes me think of Mayan writing on columns. I can’t tell if it was intentional, but each column is stacked “on top” of the recycling bins.

Rose City is another Portland nickname. This is an example of when graffiti can no longer be called an eyesore.

Rose City is another Portland nickname. This is an example of when spray-painted graffiti can no longer be called an eyesore.

Tara hams it up for the first part of the shoot at Laurelhurst Park

Tara hams it up for the first part of the shoot at Laurelhurst Park

Snowberries at the park

Snowberries at the park

Tara and I found a photographer with some great photo ideas for senior photos. We spent one Saturday at several locations, and ended up in a place so well-suited for photos that we stayed until there was almost no light at all. It was a super productive day and I am grateful for whatever photography luck gods were helping us out when we found Cambrae. I am dying to see her finished photos!

Snake mural. You can see T on the right side in the sun.

Snake mural. You can see T on the right side in the sun.

I brought my camera along and found limitless reasons to click the shutter. We started at Laurelhurst Park, a beautiful park in town that has hosted many key memories from our years in Portland, from an Easter egg hunt our first year here, to sledding the year it snowed two feet at Christmas. Then Cambrae suggested a stop at a huge mural of a black snake on a white building. Our favourite was the old burnt out building downtown that is covered in graffiti.

As the sun went down, we both tried to capture what we could of the setting, the fabulous clouds, and the many-coloured walls, and the senior.

Cambrae and Tara in the background.

Cambrae and Tara in the background.

A little senior sass! People comment about the "failed artist" and "the locals" on the wall. The words were merely what was there when we arrived, and not specifically chosen to mean anything in the photo, but it's still pretty funny. :)

A little senior sass! People comment about the “failed artist” and “the locals” on the wall. The words were merely what was there when we arrived, and not specifically chosen to mean anything in the photo, but it’s still pretty funny. 🙂

I wandered around and entertained myself by taking photos of all the tremendously interesting stuff in the building.

I wandered around and entertained myself by taking photos of all the tremendously interesting stuff in the building.

He almost blends right in. Then when you see him, he's obvious.

He almost blends right in. Then when you see him, he’s obvious.

Sunset was especially good that night with those clouds.

Sunset was especially good that night with those clouds.

Reflections made everything more exciting.

Reflections made everything more exciting.

Iron bars provide stability for the walls till someone can raze the place.

Iron bars provide stability for the walls till someone can raze the place.

An artist did a little work while we were there.

Another artist did a little work while we were there.

T brought pointe shoes to make some shot more dynamic!

T brought pointe shoes to make some shots more dynamic!

The photographer and her subject.

The photographer and her subject.

This is the first raccoon of its kind I have seen in colour. Art near the intersection of Belmont and 60th.

This is the first raccoon of its kind I have seen in colour. Art and a message, near the intersection of Belmont and 60th.

I’ve been noticing a stylized raccoon appearing in the city around me. It’s been more than a year since I first spotted them, maybe two years. In the beginning, I mainly saw tiny stencils spray-painted onto a wall or a curb, or at the Green Dragon on Belmont – on one of those wooden folding signs that businesses place on the sidewalk during open hours.   The most astonishing find was a giant raccoon face on the side of a soaring red Petco balloon during a store event on Glisan Street. These days I see black and white stickers of a simple raccoon face.

at  my bus stop

at my bus stop

The design is consistent and easily recognizable. There is something about the white eyes of the raccoon that stick with me.

The mystery fades every so often and I think I don’t care anymore till I see another one. Just that face, staring with ghost eyes right at me. Somehow not creepy, but absolutely compelling. What is it? What is it?

In my attempts to find out a back story of the raccoon, I asked many of the people in my life: “You know that raccoon that has been popping up everywhere? What’s up with that?”

“What raccoon?”

I tried describing it, to no avail. When I told my daughter Tara about the one on the Petco balloon, she rolled her eyes. “Well, it’s obviously just a promotional thing from Petco,” she said. But there was no question of that. A person gets a sense of things, and you have to go with your sense because it’s often smarter than your brain. There was a message. And it was not corporate.

When a sticker showed up at my bus stop on Stark & 86th, I finally had something helpful. I took a photo with my phone and showed it to my daughter that evening. She had never seen one.

on Thorburn Street

on Thorburn Street

But didn’t I tell you it’s a remarkable design? One glimpse on a phone, and she could already pick it out. A month later she spotted one. We had turned off Burnside onto Thorburn St, and were waiting at a light. “Mom! It’s one of those raccoons!” I gave her my phone and she got a quick photo of the sticker on the road guard before the light changed.

I could end the post right there.

I could sum it all up with a happy paragraph on how much I love Portland and it’s eclectic inhabitants, a confession of my interest in tagging, or maybe a nod and a smirk to those of you in Portland who will now SEE this thing, because you can’t help it once it has been pointed out. But I am not very comfortable with mystery. I just want to know what’s going on.

Periodically I have scanned the Internet trying to find something else that refers to the raccoon. The first few times I found nothing. Maybe nothing was out there a year ago, or maybe I used the wrong search terms. Then I found a blog that cleared it all up, and the name of the artist, and artist’s Instagram page. I actually feel relief to see a dozen images of the raccoon on line. I’m not crazy. It is a thing.

The blogger is Katie, who wrote a three-part post titled No Schools, No Churches. She is one other person at least, who noticed the raccoons. She was motivated enough to get to the bottom of it. Katie’s explosion of questions was nearly identical to mine:

Why are you doing this? What does it mean? Where did the raccoon come from? How long have you been making stickers? Do you put them up by yourself or with other people? Do you make other kinds of art? Where did you grow up? Is it OK to peel stickers? How do you feel when the raccoon is torn down or scratched out? What has the reaction been? What are your goals for the raccoon? What’s the Portland sticker scene like?

The story is hers, of course, so read her post and see how she unraveled her mystery. She introduced me to the artist: Just1. His raccoon was inspired in part by Studio Ghibli – isn’t that perfect?! I am struck by how many invisible things link people together. (I am also inspired by the art in Studio Ghibli)

I took this photo of a furry dude in my back yard a couple months ago. Afterward I realized the flash caused the same white ghost eyes as the stencils and stickers. Is there a message in that, as well?

I took this photo of a furry dude in my back yard a couple months ago. Afterward I realized the flash caused the same white ghost eyes as the stencils and stickers. Is there a message in that, as well?

In answer to my question, and maybe yours, there is no call to action. No Great Message. But from what I can tell, there are a few deceptively quiet messages that are profound: pay attention and think about what’s going on.  I haven’t talked to the artist, I don’t know anything about Portland  Art except that I love it (examples: Heavy or Wall Art). But the raccoon IS a thing. And I guess I realize now that I made it a personal thing.

I envy Just1 for doing what I want to do with my art: get through the fog. I want to reach out to take the shoulders of people, shake gently till they notice, and say, “Hello.”

“Don’t sleep,” says the raccoon on the wall, in the latest discovery I made two weeks ago, as I gazed out the window of the #15 bus. It crystalizes the message for me. (Did you get my pun? hyuk!) Whenever I see the raccoon, I do wake up. My senses go on alert, I pay attention, I think. I’ve spent time with the raccoon; we have a relationship. I’ve pondered the meaning, looked for more raccoons, and searched the Internet, all because of a black and white face I can’t forget. The raccoon gave me something to talk about, some sleuthing to do, and a story to write.

From now on, when I see a new one, I’ll be grateful for the reminder to engage with my life while I am living it.

Panels by Jackson Middle School students, framed by mural art by Aden Catalani

{as always, please click the images for a larger version}

Here’s a modern story for you: Tara has two facebook friends from Jackson Middle School who were about to present art in a show. Tara had never met them in real life, and thought she should go to the show. It would be a fun night out, and she would get to meet her friends in person. I agreed that it was a good idea, and I felt some of her delight at meeting friends in RL who had till then only existed as profile photos and comment strings on a status post.

The two girls seemed younger than her, but possibly the same age. I’ll guess 12 or 13. So I was genuinely impressed at the quality of the art and the depth of expression that came from all the students at the show.

It was called Know Power – street art for social change. Each artist covered a small panel – most were 2-3 foot rectangles. The theme was Africa, and in particular they expressed the suffering of Rwandans during genocide, lack of food and water, and the plight of child soldiers kidnapped and forced into war.

Parents, friends, and artists discuss the imagery

The Grassy Knoll Gallery is in a second-floor space on NW 2nd Ave, just off the Burnside bridge on the edge of Chinatown. A wonderful space with high ceilings and enough room to move around and gain new insightful perspectives, while small enough to remain intimate and to share the sense of shared experience with the others also appreciating the art.

In the central gallery room, Aden Catalani had painted a mural to set the stage, with a silhouette of Africa and graffiti illumination. It’s no secret to those who know me that I love graffiti art. I said as much to the artist who eagerly encouraged us to come to his own show opening with Stephen Holding at Backspace the following night. (We were unable to make it to that show opening, but I see the show is up all month, so we will try to hit it later.)

Jackson teacher Bethany was on hand to manage the show and answer questions about her talented students. She told me that she had taught some of the background during her Social Studies classes, but the students had also had the opportunity to hear visitors describe some of the social challenges in Africa. The students had also worked with a visiting artist who helped them design their pieces.

A room off to the side held a buffet of things to eat and drink, and traditional and world music played on a actual record player during the show (vinyl!). The people who put the show together did a great job and I am so glad the middle school students had the opportunity to experience a real art show. They had all been instructed to dress up for the event, so Tara and I had polished up as well. (I got to see my tomboy kid in a SKIRT! She made me promise not to put the photos on facebook – ha!)

Friends in real life

The art easily outshone all the other stories of the evening. Many of the images were powerful on their own, and each artist included a short paragraph below the piece to explain the idea behind their expression. These snapshots of pain, hunger, thirst, war, fear, and death told a single story of human suffering. Young people can often see most clearly in the face of societal failures, because they have not yet learned the advantage that some seek through the oppression of others.

All proceeds from donations at the show will go to Play Pumps by Water For People. See previous post for a short video on the Play Pumps project.

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