Activism Through Art
In Portland

By Noah Nelson

Socially active artists have taken to the streets of Portland, Oregon, to showcase their work. And their subject matter? The Black Lives Matter movement, Pride Month, George Floyd, and much more. With paint canister in hand and a city for a canvas, a new generation of activists have turned to art during a time of social and political upheaval to spread their message, as well as some color, throughout Portland. 

The rainbow Pride mural pictured above, done by a Portland artist that goes by “Blue”, was painted in honor of Pride Month, which commemorates the Stonewall Riots of 1969. These riots were the spark that helped push the LGBTQ+ community into a movement that eventually went on to win marriage equality in 2015 and protection from discrimination in the workplace just now in 2020, under title VII of Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The script in this piece is an acronym of the word PRIDE, and states “Portland will overcome adversity with love, Reborn in a kaleidoscope of blinding color, Illuminated by insight and truth, Desperately entangled with hope, Embracing the new earth that we are creating together.”

Other symbols and calls for action in street art found around Portland focus heavily on the BLM movement and cases of Black Americans being killed by police that gained widespread media attention, like the images above that portray Tamir Rice, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others.

A visual artist that has been using her art in socially and politically active ways in Portland is Ameya Marie Okamoto. She is the creator of many viral images of the victims of police killings over the years that try to portray the victim in a more human light. In an interview with OPB, she said that “When individuals become catalysts for Black Lives Matter and catalysts for social change, there is a level of complex personhood that is stripped away from them.”

Okamoto explained that one of her goals is to simply show the world the victim through the lens of a family member or friend. This way, the person in question does not simply become an inhuman hashtag for people to post about. With art dedicated to the individual and their self, they can retain a sense of humanity that they previously lost. Read her full interview here.

The iconography found all over Portland just shows that this is a city with a culture dedicated to progress. The murals show a channeling of emotions into something beautiful and constructive that can remain up for years to come. The overall message seen around the city encompasses two main themes. First off, acknowledge the fact that many major cities and states have problematic pasts. And secondly, after that acknowledgement, be willing to build Portland up as a city that thrives on community and love.

This message is carried on by a major player in the street art game. The Portland Street Art Alliance, or PSAA, organizes murals as well as tours around the city to see some of their best work. PSAA works with the city of Portland as a non-profit organization to brighten up the city, and turn boring walls into colorful murals that tell the unique stories of the people who live there. 

The PSAA has a four pronged mission to research, educate, network, and organize throughout the city. This mission coalesces into professional development and education, community outreach, internships, as well as tours and tourism.

Overall, the PSAA and all of the street art in Portland live up to the city’s motto. “Keep Portland Weird” has for a long time been a calling to keep the city unique and open for expression. The street art and the support for it show that this motto is not going anywhere soon.

For more information about the PSAA, visit their website here.