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Totally tagged: What's being done about Portland's graffiti problem

Monday morning, Portland police arrested a 22-year-old man described as a prolific tagger. The effort to clean up tags like those is costing us millions of dollars.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The amount of graffiti in Portland has risen to become quite literally a million-dollar problem. Earlier this year, the Oregon Department of Transportation awarded $2 million to a contractor in order to clean up graffiti and litter. But for a long time, it has seemed like clean-up after the fact is the best that anyone in Portland can hope for — and even that is hit or miss.

Viewers have let KGW know several times how frustrating the issues can be. Jay emailed earlier this month, remarking that the response for clean-up has been slow.

"I write to the Graffiti Abatement department often to remove graffiti in the neighborhood. They used to react — now, nothing. Are they shut down?" he asked.

The program is not shut down, but it may feel that way with the sort of response people like Jay are getting.

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Someone with the pseudonym "one txt" emailed back in June to say, "I've reported several highway signs covered in graffiti to ODOT, PBOT and Portland Civic Life's graffiti program multiple times since January 2021 — no change. Nothing was ever done."

This viewer also included some snapshots of the ODOT signs leading from the Fremont Bridge to Highway 30. It wasn't a pretty sight, though they have received a clean-up since.

Also in June, Jennifer emailed to say, "The graffiti that litters our buildings, garbage cans and everything else is not art. It's ugly and makes our city look trashy. But what can the city do about this? Is there a schedule or plan to wash and repaint? Are we stuck with all this?"

KGW's Pat Dooris tried contacting the city office that handles graffiti to ask them that very question, but they did not respond.

Taking taggers to task

These examples only scratch the surface of frustration over graffiti in Portland. A recent stroll down to Pioneer Square from the KGW studio turned up a number of examples of graffiti. It's so common that many people probably walk or drive by without even noticing any more.

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Of course, there are some blocks downtown that appeared untouched. But the beautiful Jackson Tower building just off Pioneer Square, for example, has loads of graffiti way up by the top.

Over the weekend, Portland police marked at least one example of a sea change on the topic of graffiti. The agency put out a statement notifying the public that they were looking for 22-year-old Emile Laurent, an alleged "prolific" tagger. He turned himself in and was taken into custody Monday morning.

Laurent was charged with 25 counts of criminal mischief. A statement from the Multnomah County District Attorney's office said that the charges stemmed from a series of incidents over the last four years, when Laurent allegedly tagged buildings and structures with his nom de plume, "TENDO." Investigators think it was meant to be shorthand for Nintendo.

The district attorney's office issued a list of places Laurent is charged with tagging, and the costs required to cover it all up. Some of the most expensive were American Medical Response off Southwest 2nd, $6,000; Public Storage off North Gantenbein Avenue, $5,700; F.E. Bennett off Northeast Broadway Street, $2,700; and various City of Portland properties, costing at least $1,600.

The D.A. reported that the total cost of these and other clean-ups have reached nearly $20,000.

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Big bucks for clean-ups

But a single bad actor is just a small slice of the problem. Graffiti is so bad in the Portland area that the state legislature approved that extra $2 million for ODOT to finance clean-up activities in the city. The funding isn't free money — it all comes from tax dollars, and it's costing taxpayers every year.

"It's all over the place. It's alongside the freeways, it's on the highway signs themselves ... we've got extra crews out there, we've got our own maintenance crews out there taking this on," said Don Hamilton, a spokesman for ODOT. "It's really underway everywhere and we're doing the best we can to take this on right now."

We asked Hamilton why the clean-up isn't happening faster, especially when it impacts important traffic signs.

"We are taking these on as quickly as we can," Hamilton said. "The legislature last year authorized an additional two million dollars for us to start attacking graffiti."

Hamilton said that the state has hired a local company called Portland Graffiti Removal, which has a crew working for ODOT five days a week cleaning up graffiti.

Despite efforts to meet the problem, Hamilton said that it's frustrating for everyone when the paint is wiped away, painted over — and then the taggers come right back.

"We're very pleased the police are going after the bad guys in this and we're doing everything we can to work with police, to do everything we can to get these bad guys to their attention and get the police to take care of them," Hamilton said.

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The hard line

After Laurent's arrest on Monday, the Mayor's office put out a statement:

"We will not allow Portland to be marred by graffiti and vandalism. I hope those responsible for defacing our city are held accountable for the damage caused. I want to thank the Portland Police Bureau for their work to investigate and apprehend the suspect."

But in the opinion of our own Pat Dooris, the arrest may be a case of too little, too late.

"In the 32 years that I've reported here, I don't really remember Portland ever 'cracking down' on graffiti vandals in anything more than an isolated arrest or two," Dooris said. "The city did try to make it harder for them to buy markers about 13 years ago, which is why it can be a hassle to buy spray paint to touch up your lawn furniture. But that move had questionable impact."

Plenty of people will argue that graffiti is an art form, and Dooris said that he's seen some beautiful work. But tagging — the spray painting of a simple word or signature — isn't art, he said. He thinks it's a statement that rules and laws aren't being enforced.

"So that statement from the Mayor's office, in my opinion, rings hollow," Dooris continued. "You're not going to allow Portland to be marred by graffiti and vandalism? Way too late for that. It is right now. And I think it's a good sign that police, specifically the Neighborhood Response Team from Central Precinct, is going after these folks."

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