In this interview, Choice sits down with Tiffany Conklin and Tomás Valladares, founders of the Portland Street Art Alliance (PSAA), to discuss the Pacific Northwest–based public art initiative and its efforts to support local artists, fund and preserve new and existing public art projects, and educate the public on the history and meaning of public art in the area.
How would you describe the Portland Street Art Alliance (PSAA) to a perfect stranger?
Tiffany Conklin and Tomás Valladares: PSAA is a nonprofit working to advance street art culture by empowering artists to activate the spaces where we live, work, and play. We provide access to resources, networking platforms, and professional development opportunities for Pacific Northwest artists. Since 2012, PSAA has facilitated commissioned work resulting in over $650,000 paid to working artists and managed over 200 private and publicly funded street art projects, collaborating with hundreds of artists. PSAA also offers educational programming, tours, and hosts community events. We strive to actively transform the public art landscape by developing more inclusive place-based programs aimed to increase access to art for everyone.
PSAA seems primarily geared toward connecting with local artists in Portland, though the organization also maintains a wealth of educational materials for those who may know little about the street art scene. Who is the intended audience for PSAA’s work? How do you envision people, both within Portland and beyond, engaging with and utilizing your organization’s resources?
TC/TV: PSAA is primarily a regional network of artists, professionals, and academics. Although we started in Portland, the work we do now extends to cities and towns across the Pacific Northwest. For those nearby, our resources can help artists secure paid work, clients access top-notch artistic services, and people learn more about both local and regional public art. In recent years we have engaged in targeted outreach to underserved artist communities including artists of color, BIPOC, LQBTQIA+, women, and rural artists. For those outside of Portland, PSAA also strives to share with the public critical theory regarding the politics of public space, geographic analysis of street art and graffiti, and public education opportunities for visitors through our tour program. Like the art we create in the streets, the work we do is meant to support everyone.
Since PSAA is very invested in community building, did the COVID-19 pandemic pose any challenges to carrying out in-person projects or commissions?
TC/TV: Thankfully our operations were not hindered too much by the pandemic. It turns out, creating street art is inherently a COVID-safe community activity. It is easy to remain socially distant and create a safe working environment. Artists are also often already wearing masks and gloves while they are working. For the community, they are still able to show up, watch from afar, and appreciate the artwork.
Although PSAA may not seem like a typical archive to some, a big part of its mission is to “document and preserve the rich heritage of public art.” In contrast to perceptions of “traditional” archives being confined within exclusive institutions, PSAA’s archival and educational content is available online, making it easily accessible to a wide audience. Where do you see PSAA fitting within the context of more traditional archives? Or does PSAA carve out a space for a new type of modern repository to document community history?
TC/TV: PSAA’s archives are not traditional in the sense that they are not found in a library, museum, or private collection. The work we do is on the streets, open and accessible for everyone. We document the work we do via digital platforms including our website and social media accounts. Like street art itself being open and free for everyone to enjoy, we also see our archives being an important publicly accessible database.
Over the years, we have made a concerted effort to not only help document public art, but also to shine a light on the history of street art in Portland, undertaking research projects centered on “lost places,” such as Pirate Town, Taylor Electric, Sunshine Dairy, and the LoveJoy Columns. PSAA restored Portland’s second oldest mural, Art Fills the Void, and completed an oral history exercise with the lead artist who has since passed away. Most recently we completed a mural documenting the history of the Central Eastside Industrial District of Portland working closely with history and geography professors from Portland State University to research and develop the mural content.
PSAA is often tasked with painting historical buildings that are scheduled for demolition or redevelopment. We are actually uncovering hard artifacts inside these often abandoned places, acting as amateur urban archaeologists. These pieces of everyday “colloquial history” would easily end up in the demolition pile, but we strive to save what we can when we find something interesting that speaks to the building’s history. With these projects, PSAA researches the buildings past, gathering historical information and putting that on the PSAA website page dedicated to the mural project. Sometimes we even incorporate the site’s history into the mural work itself as we did with the murals Bread & Roses, Central Eastside History, and Sunshine Dairy. At PSAA, we feel that we have an obligation to document and save these pieces of history, as we act as temporary stewards of these buildings’ walls. We are helping to write a new and sometimes final chapter of a significant piece of the built environment.
What are some of the benefits to hosting content primarily online? What about the challenges?
TC/TV: Like street art itself being open and free for everyone to enjoy, we also see our archives being an important publicly accessible database. Prior to those online platforms, you would have to physically be in a city and spend days combing the streets, alleyways, and abandoned buildings to catch a glimpse of the public art scene. Now you can do that from the comfort of your own home. Street art (even murals) is ephemeral, much more temporary than the building on which it is drawn. With today’s digital technology, it is easier than ever to document a piece of ephemeral art in the streets before it is removed, or the building is torn down. It lives on in the photographs that are shared and reshared. As for challenges, street art’s impermanence also entails that it is constantly changing. That means a lot of documentation is quickly out of date, including attempts at mapmaking. Mapping street art is an incredibly time consuming and detailed process. If the map is publicly populated, you are also faced with the possibility of putting hidden graffiti art and locations at risk.
In addition to serving as a community archive, PSAA is also an advocacy organization and artist network. Accordingly, the span of PSAA’s work is broad, ranging from commissioning community art projects to “facilitat[ing] educational forums, host[ing] interpretive tours, and provid[ing] online platforms for community-building.” Do you see this work as an extension of how an archive should ideally serve its community?
TC/TV: We see ourselves as active participants in shaping our community and its history. The physical work we do on the streets is a living archive of sorts. One that is both publicly created, accessed, used, and enjoyed. Our work would be pretty meaningless if no one ever saw it, if we did not document the process of how or why it was created. We think it is important to share stories about the history of our communities in the public realm to help people understand how that history interacts with and impacts everyday life and how it could be shaping that place in the future. We love seeing people reclaim spaces for community uses in and around the public art projects we help create. An essential part of the tours we host is passing down the stories, knowledge, and history of where we are and the art that once was here and is here now.
The city maps, commissioned by PSAA in partnership with Travel Portland, seem a particularly unique and substantial undertaking. Developed by local artists and researchers, the maps illustrate and index where to find notable murals in the city. Can you talk about the process of planning and organizing this project? How did you connect with local artists and researchers who undertook the documentation?
TC/TV: The Travel Portland–sponsored maps took about six months to create from concept to product. Luckily, PSAA’s internal team was well-suited to spearhead this project, having extensive research, mapping, and artistic backgrounds. We asked ourselves questions like: Who are the audiences? What areas of the city should the maps cover and why? How can we represent a diversity of mural work? What are fun and clear ways to depict that data on different maps? And how can we add that special street art touch to the maps’ design so they fit in visually with the work we do? PSAA then turned to our artist roster to narrow in on artists that would be a good fit for helping us physically draw and design some of the unique map elements. We hired a graphic designer who had some experience in mapmaking and a graffiti artist who had a nice traditional “hand-style” to produce the title typography for the maps.
PSAA also hosts several advocacy and research reports on a wide variety of topics relating to graffiti and street art, such as the 2017 report on hate and political graffiti in Portland and Project P.A.I.N.T., in order “to promote progressive urban policies which support this craft and artistic community.” What role can and should community archives play in pushing for social and political change within their respective communities?
TC/TV: Community archives are important repositories for lay histories. Not everyone’s story makes it into the history books, but many people still have interesting stories to tell, stories that shape the places where we live and play. Exploring community archives can help us better understand the cultural context of a community.
At PSAA specifically, our founding directors are well-versed in the history of graffiti abatement in Portland. Early on, we had the opportunity to connect with and learn a great deal from our predecessors, artists and activists in Portland’s public art scene that fought to keep art alive in the streets (even battling out court cases). The struggle for freedom of expression in Portland specifically is a complicated history. Thanks to countless public art activists over the decades, PSAA feels as if it is our duty to carry on this torch and keep encouraging and challenging the city to do better, to speak to power and question city policies and practices that are not accessible and put up barriers that impede artists. We see the power of our collective knowledge and the platform of our organization as a central part of our mission to push to promote democracy and the importance of maintaining a certain level of freedom of expression in public space.
PSAA’s history of street art in Portland references African American muralist Isaka Shamsud-Din’s Albina Mural Project and the short “Albina Murals” documentary that was restored by Portland State University. Has PSAA ever partnered with Portland State, or other universities, in its preservation and documentation efforts, or ever thought of doing so? Do you see a benefit to partnering with an academic institution to preserve community history?
TC/TV: PSAA has partnered with universities on a variety of projects including research, mapping, presentations, and panel talks. We are very open to these types of partnerships and opportunities to highlight existing documentation and collect new historical data. PSAA’s main focus is mural-making, and our mission is not specifically archival. This means it is that much more important to enter into partnerships with people and organizations who have the specialization and skills needed to help us document and tell the stories of the places we paint and the communities in which those pieces of art arise. Mural-making itself has a long history of depicting community stories and placemaking. You see this best in the rich history of mural work in Mexico where murals have been used traditionally to spread visual messages to the population (who often could not read), allowing for greater community inclusion and cohesiveness. These messages promoted cultural identity, history, and sometimes political or socially driven statements. PSAA is inspired by that tradition, and anytime we can use one of our projects to help tell the stories of the local people and places of the Pacific Northwest we do.
PSAA has been involved in a number of notable projects to “restore historic community murals, promote regional street art, [and] create critical dialogues about pressing issues,” such as the Ladies Up Mural Project and the Legal Walls PDX research project. Is there a project that you’re particularly proud of, or one that was particularly meaningful?
TC/TV: While we find meaning and importance in all the projects we do, one of our recently completed projects in 2021 stands out: the Central Eastside History Mural. This massive 12,000-square-foot mural is dedicated to the nautical history of the Central Eastside Industrial District of Portland. Working closely with a team of professors from Portland State University, including Dr. Carl Abbott, famed Portland historian, and Dr. Hunter Shobe, cultural geographer and member of Portland Street Art Alliance’s Board of Directors, PSAA gathered historical research to help inform the content of this mural. The mural design honors the history of the Central Eastside Industrial District and this stretch of the Willamette River, specifically, the industrial and maritime history as a hub for shipping and commerce in the late 1800s.
What, ultimately, do you hope to convey to people outside of the local street art community about its value to the broader public?
TC/TV: We can all be active participants in creating, sustaining, and promoting our community’s history. Historically, public spaces have not been an automatic or guaranteed public right. They have only been made public because someone takes the space and makes it public. Existing public space will only remain open if people ensure its continued access by occupying it and consistently pushing its boundaries. At PSAA, we see public space as a “city’s barometer of justice” and its quality speaks volumes about what a society believes is important. Access to public space, especially for creative expression, is critically important because these spaces serve as physical arenas for democratic actions. In uncertain times, when economic, social, and political systems fail to support society, public art serves the vital function of communicating grassroots ideas, sympathies, and demands. Public art also brings us together and helps preserve our community’s history. It is a living and breathing archive that is free and accessible for everyone to learn from and enjoy.
About the interviewees:
Tiffany Conklin is the Executive Director of PSAA. She founded the organization in 2012, along with the now President of the Board of Directors, Tomás Valladares. Tiffany has nearly two decades of professional research experience, including 13 years managing projects at Portland State University. Tiffany holds a Bachelor’s in Cultural Anthropology and Sociology, and a Master’s in Urban Studies from Portland State University, with a specialty focus on Public Space. Tiffany manages the daily operations of PSAA, including all commissioned work, community art projects, public policy consultation, and a variety of public engagement activities.
Tomás Valladares (L) and Tiffany Conklin (R)
Tomás Valladares is a Founding Director of PSAA. Being Cuban-Venezuelan from South Florida, he is fluent in both English and Spanish. He has worked as a creative producer and videographer since 2008 and holds a Master’s in Arts Administration and Media Management from the University of Oregon. Tomás has helped manage several art galleries in Portland including University of Oregon’s White Box Gallery and One Grand Gallery in Portland. Tomás currently serves on the Regional Arts & Culture Council public art advisory board.