Portland 'graffiti wall' gets support at hearing

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PORTLAND — A decision on the “graffiti wall” along East End Trail is not expected until the end of February.

Public support for allowing artists to continue to use the Portland Water District retaining wall as an ever-changing medium was strong in an hour-long Jan. 25 meeting of some PWD Trustees.

“It is one of my favorite places to paint, ever. I’ve had more people admire my work than not,” South Portland resident Mike Rich told the trustees’ Planning Committee.

Stretching about the length of a football field outside the PWD water treatment plant, the wall has been used by artists since 2000, PWD Corporate Counsel Donna Katsiaficas said before testimony began.

There is no formal agreement between the PWD, city and Portland Trails to allow graffiti on the wall, she added.

In December, Katsiaficas warned trustees they faced an either/or choice about the wall: Either graffiti continues or it doesn’t, because any attempt to regulate content could be challenged as a violation of the First Amendment.

Nisha Swinton, one of four trustees representing Portland, chaired the hearing and sought to balance testimony by asking groups of five supporters and then five opponents of painting the wall to step forward.

But only two people spoke against allowing graffiti on the wall. One of them, Thomas Blackburn, said he was ambivalent about restricting public art, but tired of dealing with graffiti on a downtown building he owns.

Jay York, an East Bayside resident who in November 2016 asked the PWD to consider converting the wall to a commissioned mural, said trustees should consider whether they have an appropriate role in promoting public art.

York said the wall has not succeeded in deterring graffiti on private buildings downtown, and said public safety is affected.

“You can spray paint while pedestrians and bicyclists are using the trail and that is extremely hazardous,” he said.

Artist Sean McGovern disagreed, saying the art on the wall opens dialogue brings people together.

“Children are always curious and so excited when I let them use one of my cans to doodle on the wall,” he said.

City resident Johana Rivera said the freedom of expression the wall promotes is needed.

“It gives you a place to go and say what you have to say,” she said.

Trustee William Lunt, who serves Cumberland and Falmouth, said the decision to allow graffiti acknowledged the wall was already being tagged.

“We couldn’t stay ahead of it anyways, and it was costing us a fortune to take care of it,” Lunt said.

Trustees are are still open to public comment by email. A decision is expected at the Feb. 27 meeting.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland Water District trustees are expected to decide Feb. 27 whether to continue allow graffiti art on this wall at the East End Beach water treatment plant.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.