A team of spray-paint artists recently completed a multi-building mural on SE Stark Street at 81st Avenue. The resident business, ATC Auto Body, worked with the local arts non-profit Portland Street Art Alliance (PSAA) to create this wrap-around graphic presentation honoring local Asian-Americans in East Portland. Artist Demecio “Dre” Sierra designed the art installation, painting over 200 feet of wall with the support of fellow street artists.
Earlier this year, the property’s owner and tenant at 8120 SE Stark Street worked with the City of Portland to secure financial support for a mural on his two Montavilla buildings. The city provided grant funds to the PSAA, who hired Sierra and rented an aerial lift required to paint the project’s higher elevations. The property owner eventually settled on a theme honoring the local Asian-American community around 82nd Avenue and East Portland. Initially, Sierra considered options that would highlight the automotive nature of the location but failed to find much inspiration around that concept. “The first idea was different. They wanted to keep it auto-body related, and I really didn’t know what to do for that exactly. They ended up telling me that the business owner wanted a multicultural Asian mural,” remembers Sierra.
That multicultural directive helped drive the project forward, with Sierra sketching ideas on an iPad. He used bright colors to add vibrancy to the dark Pacific Northwest winter skyline and incorporated Maneki Neko, pandas, and origami birds into the culturally inspired design. The scope of the mural project was initially smaller, focusing on SE Stark Street. However, the contract permitted him to continue painting until he ran out of supplies or time. Sierra ended up having extra material and reached out to his artistic group of friends. The team filled unpainted gaps along the building, each contributing their unique style to the extended piece. “I tried to include a lot of artists that don’t get opportunities to have their art on the walls. It’s a challenge to try to wrangle up a bunch of people, but it was a good challenge, and I’m lucky to have that group of friends willing to put their time and effort into helping beautify our community,” said Sierra.
Sierra faced other challenges working on this project, utilizing new tools and working outside his comfort zone. The height of this project required the use of a self-propelled scissor lift. Having never used that equipment before, Sierra became a certified lift operator and quickly learned the dangers of elevated painting. Uneven ground demanded the use of tire shims before the device would rise, and overhead power lines presented deadly obstacles. Additionally, the size and texture of the building also demanded more involved tools. “I used mostly spray paint. [However], there were some spots where I had to use a cordless sparer for the first time to do some of the radiating lines that came off the top. That thing is like a giant spray can, and it was a really great piece of equipment that I’ll be using again in the future,” explained Sierra.
Although continually learning new skills, Sierra has over a decade of experience creating mural artwork in the city. “I’ve been in Portland for 15 years. I came up here after leaving a city job I had. I pulled out my retirement and said, ‘You know, I could work for the city for another 20 years and retire, or I could go fulfill this dream of being an artist.’ So I came up from Arizona with some money in my pocket and my dreams,” said Sierra. It took several years to establish himself as an artist, and he attributes much of his success to working with the PSAA. He also attributes it to a change in city policy that rewards art over advertising. “I think it’s great that the city has allowed us to start building murals again. There was a period where there were no murals in the city due to Clear Channel,” explained Sierra.
In 1999, Clear Channel – doing business as AK Media – won a legal challenge to Porltand’s strict signage regulations. As a result, the city could no longer differentiate between murals and commercial signs. That ruling allowed property owners to sell blank wall space for advertising, so the Portland leaders opted to restrict billboards and murals under the same city code. Over the next decade, public art advocates led by muralist Joe Cotter worked to repair the broken system, eventually freeing murals from the city’s sign code in 2009. Three years later, PSAA began its work to facilitate street art projects throughout the city, and Portland has seen a resurgence in the mural craft.
Demecio “Dre” Sierra takes substantial pleasure in painting murals around Portland. Not only does he have large canvases to fill, but he can rotate through communities, meeting people and hearing their stories. “That’s part of the job, getting to go around all these neighborhoods and spend maybe a week or two in them, see it from their eyes,” said Sierra. That helps shape the art and makes it a rewarding career. He thanks his fellow contributors on this project, including Rile, Abnr, Mctools, and The Earwig. The project is complete and available for anyone walking around the Historic Downtown Montavilla area to enjoy.
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