New murals in Portland’s inner core hope to inspire a little old-fashioned civic pride

Readers of The New York Times and viewers of Fox News know that Portland, especially downtown Portland, is the center of a decaying star, a horrible place full of death and sadness.

Of course, that’s just one side of the story, as told by national news outlets. The story on the ground is much more complicated. Portland, like most major cities in the United States, is grappling with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the emptying out of downtowns, and a horrific fentanyl crisis.

Simultaneously, downtown is full of hope – people working to help those living on the streets, new restaurants, businesses, tourists and yes, even some office workers. And now, three new murals are hoping to inspire something Portland is in dire need of: Civic pride.

“Portland Music Mural,” 1130 S.W. Morrison St.

A mural with colorful outline paintings of musical artists.

On the east wall of the Mayer Building, next to a Trimet turnaround, “Portland Music Mural” celebrates the city as an incubator of great musicians. Artists like Aminé, Elliot Smith, Obo Addy and Storm Large are there, plus a whole lot more. In total, 25 musicians and bands are immortalized on the wall.

The project was dreamt up by artist Jason Savage and brought to life by Portland-based visual artists The Pander Brothers.

Savage has lived in Portland for 20 years. He works part-time at The Old Portland Wine Bar, which is owned by Courtney Taylor-Taylor, lead singer of the Dandy Warhols. While spending time at the bar, Savage said, he was around a lot of Portland music people. He finished a photography project and wanted to create something music-related, he said.

“I noticed that Portland didn’t have any public art anywhere that was a tribute to the music of this city,” Savage said.

His first concept was lettering-based, but when he talked to Arnold and Jacob Pander, they told him they would love to do something music-related but they worked more in illustrations. The final concept became the graphic illustrations of local music legends, in color on a white wall.

The project took four years from concept to completion, mainly due to the COVID pandemic. Artichoke Music, a nonprofit, is a fiscal sponsor for the project, so donations are tax-deductible. Financial donors include restaurant Quaintrelle and U.S. Bank, among others.

“One of the things I wanted to do was remind Portland of some of the things that make it cool,” Savage said. And, he added, “show the rich musical history and the diverse musical history that’s come from this town.”

In that way, the new “Portland Music Mural,” which was unveiled in early September, succeeds in reminding Portlanders and visitors who walk by that the city does indeed have a rich, and very cool, musical history. From The Kingsmen and The Decemberists to Lifesavas and Deadmoon, and everyone in between, Portland is a music city.

Read more: 24-hour ‘Louie Louie’ marathon concert will feature 70 acts playing the iconic song

“Portland Is What You Make It,” 139 S.E. Taylor St.

While “civic” is a word that conjures up municipalities and city governments, who says local businesses can’t be involved?

Wieden and Kennedy is the force behind the “Portland Is What You Make It” mural in inner Southeast. The mural, completed in August, is just one part of what the company that brought you “Just Do It” calls “a campaign to harness the pride of Portland through active community leaders and influencers.”

The whole point of the initiative is to encourage Portlanders to share their ideas for making Portland a better place and so it’s appropriate that the massive kitten mural displaying the slogan was painted by a Portlander, Ray Baxter.

Baxter has been painting murals professionally since 2009. He was born in Troutdale, but spent time in New York before coming back to Troutdale in 2018, expecting to be able to break into the mural business in Portland.

But it was harder than he thought it would be.

“I actually I’ve lost a bunch of jobs because people just show up and start painting a building and then the business owners are like, ‘Great, I guess it’s not going to get tagged by you anymore,’” Baxter said. “I’m not getting the walls and ability to paint these large murals and nobody wants to pay for a mural correctly when they can get some guys to come do it for a six-pack of beer and a pizza.”

He gave up and decided to do some work without getting paid, just to show his skills. But while working on that job, he started talking to a business owner. One thing led to another and soon, he had the gig to paint the Wieden and Kennedy mural. (He did the actual painting of this mural for free but Wieden and Kennedy paid for his materials and equipment and also for the labor and materials for a separate mural he painted live at their launch event.)

The message of the mural has personal significance to Baxter, as a person from Portland.

“Portland’s been a beautiful place forever, and there’s so much good here, and I honestly don’t think that it’s falling apart,” he said. “I think it’s becoming a big city.”

Baxter is happy to help Portland process the growing pains with a positive initiative and an enormous kitten. Out of several options, he chose that kitten with the big watery eyes, he said, because he thinks people are less likely to graffiti over it.

“Everybody loves a kitten,” Baxter said.

Read more: Mural featuring Nikki Brown Clown unveiled in NE Portland

“Support Working Artists,” the back of 1650 S.E. Third Ave., facing Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard

On a large purple wall, visible from Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in Southeast Portland, blocks from Baxter’s mural, is a Portland Street Art Alliance mural with a message Baxter might appreciate – “Support Working Artists.”

Portland Street Art Alliance is a nonprofit that manages and supports local mural-making. This mural was funded by a grant from Travel Portland.

“The Central Eastside plays host to Portland’s hard-working visual artists, makers, musicians, photographers, craftspeople, chefs and more,” wrote Portland Street Art Alliance of the inspiration for the project. “Amidst the challenges that face Portland today, artists remind us of the beauty and passion that continue to make this city a great place to live.”

The mural, which fills a large wall with text and a disembodied hand spray painting the words, was created in July by artists ERAS and Never Satisfied.

“There is so much conversation about re-investment in the city and the future of Portland. PSAA believes the important role of artists in this process needs to be recognized and prioritized,” said Tiffany Conklin, executive director at Portland Street Art Alliance in a statement.

“Supporting artists not only involves providing opportunities and elevating voices, but also paying artists livable wages,” Conklin said. “We hope this mural can act as a call to action, to support artists and change makers of all kinds.”

Read more: 5 new murals celebrate the real Portland.

— Lizzy Acker

503-221-8052; lacker@oregonian.com; @lizzzyacker

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