Portland Water District faces ‘all or nothing’ decision on graffiti wall

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PORTLAND — The fate of public art on the retaining wall separating the East End Trail from the Portland Water District treatment will not be settled until at least February.

“I think the next step might be to gather more public information. Taking it to a committee, we are just talking amongst ourselves,” PWD Portland Trustee James Willey said Monday during a workshop about the “graffiti wall” that has been a concrete canvas for 15 years.

Trustees recommended having a discussion about allowing people to continue painting on the wall during a special meeting of the trustee’s Planning Committee, and will set a meeting date at their Dec. 27 meeting.

The wall became a workshop topic after Bayside resident Jay York asked trustees to consider prohibiting graffiti on the wall, which PWD spokeswoman Michelle Clements estimated to be 100 yards long.

During public comment on non-agenda items at the Nov. 28 meeting, York said the wall was “basically a training ground for young criminals to express themselves.”

He said he and others would support turning the wall into a mural, adding that permitting graffiti “sends a mixed message to the community” and could be a root cause of the graffiti problem in the city.

Citing an encounter around Thanksgiving with someone painting at the wall who did not want to be photographed, York said, “He is probably one of the young vandals who is spray-painting our properties.”

PWD Portland Trustee Gary Libby disagreed with York on his “training ground” comment, but did note nearby light posts, the trail and rocks have also been painted.

No public comment was heard in Monday’s workshop, but PWD Corporation Counsel Donna Katsiaficas outlined the 15-year tacit agreement with Portland Trails to use the wall for graffiti.

“The wall is now considered public art space. It is not traditional art space; we made it so by dedicating it,” she said, adding former Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood was the first to spray the wall.

Katsiaficas said the city and Portland Trails are responsible for maintenance and cleanup of the trail, and the last time there had been complaints was about a decade ago, involving trash. The city then cleaned up the litter, mostly empty paint cans.

Any change in the approach to the wall would have to be total, since it would be hard to ban certain kinds of art because of First Amendment issues, Katsiaficas said.

“It is pretty much going to be all or nothing,” she said, adding she would not provide legal advice until trustees decide on a possible course of action.

In a Dec. 8 email to Katsiaficas, that was first sent to Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Manager Jon Jennings, York called the wall a “failed experiment.”

“I can easily put together a group of Portland property owners who are constantly dealing with illegal graffiti and who feel city leaders have done little to deal with this issue,” York said.

His was the only email of 20 provided to trustees that sought a graffiti ban.

Wall supporters, including Councilor Belinda Ray, Portland Housing Authority Executive Director Jay Waterman and Portland Public Art Committee Chairwoman Lin Lisberger urged trustees not to act against public art.

Portland native Emily Pighetti said she has enjoyed the wall since she was a child.

“Now as an adult, I still think it is a fantastic idea … It is a great example of community art – sometimes unpopular, but always evolving,” she said.

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

People have used a retaining wall on the East End Trail in Portland as a canvas for 15 years. In February, PWD trustees will host a meeting to discuss whether graffiti should continue to be allowed.

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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.