Brian King’s version of “Groundhog Day” includes an industrial-strength pressure washer, gallons of paint — and buckets of patience.
The 48-year-old welder runs his own business, but in recent months he has picked up a side hustle: removing graffiti from the exteriors of private businesses that can’t keep pace with Portland’s plentiful taggers.
“Sometimes, I prime one wall, and by the next morning it has graffiti down the side,” King said.
For many in Portland, graffiti is more than just an eyesore. Two-thirds of Portland-area voters said tagging was a “very big” or “moderately big” problem, according to a poll of 600 likely voters in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties commissioned by The Oregonian/OregonLive this month. The poll by DHM Research surveyed voters from Oct. 5 to Oct. 10 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Among only Portland voters, 61 percent of respondents called graffiti a “very big” or “moderately big” problem, compared with 83 percent of respondents who put litter in the same two categories. These results have a margin of error or plus or minus 5.7 percentage points.
While graffiti comes nowhere near homelessness or crime as a top concern among Oregon voters ahead of Election Day, it is a very visible problem. Complaints to the city have doubled since 2020 and taggers are leaving bigger marks on taller buildings that require construction lifts to clean, documents from the city show. Portland police and prosecutors, meanwhile, have focused their attention on “prolific” taggers.
Republicans in Portland (81%) were more likely than Democrats (30%) to name graffiti as a “very big problem.” So were voters who said they backed Rene Gonzalez (50%) over incumbent Jo Ann Hardesty (13%) in the contest for Portland City Council, according to the poll.
The job of cleaning up the tags falls to others in addition to King.
Portland Graffiti Removal contracts with the Oregon Department of Transportation to help clear tags on overpasses along major freeways, including Interstates 5 and 205. It has been a challenge to keep up with the constant graffiti covering signs, a potentially dangerous distraction to drivers, said owner Robert Barrie. The cleaning crews patrol certain stretches of the road as needed and directed by ODOT.
“It’s kind of an endless loop,” Barrie said.
ODOT spokesperson Don Hamilton said the issue has become increasingly difficult to deal with over the past two years. Crews from ODOT and private contractors are out cleaning graffiti every day, but taggers return to the same spots frequently.
“It’s a very frustrating experience for all of these crews, because it’s coming back again and again,” Hamilton said. “We’re starting to make some impact on it.”
The Portland Bureau of Transportation also has seen an uptick, spokesperson Dylan Rivera said. From July 1 through the end of August, Rivera said the structures division cleaned around 280 bridges, retaining walls, planters and public staircases, compared with 250 sites in all of the last fiscal year.
Portland Public Schools has been struggling with tagging as well. According to spokesperson Sydney Kelly, 90% of the district’s schools have been damaged by vandalism and graffiti so far this year. The issue has gotten increasingly worse over the last two and a half years, Kelly said.
Jennie Kim, who manages a Boost Mobile retailer in the King Neighborhood, said that graffiti is a constant problem.
Kim’s store has given up trying to clean everything, and has opted for a new strategy, she said.
“We actually leave that back corner boarded off as kind of a canvas,” Kim said. “It seems to be working honestly. It’s some kind of solution at least.”
– Austin De Dios; email@example.com; @austindedios; (503) 319-9744
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