Cultural Subnatures #2: The Infrastructure of Maintenance and Event

In the last two posts the conceptual thread has been weaving its way from urban subnatures to subcultures, via a movement from the derelict expressions of weeds to spray paint.  We arrive (and conclude) at the cultural subnature of graffiti located immediately adjacent to the weed prairie in Portland’s inner southeast industrial district.  All the images in this post are from this long and narrow strip next to the Willamette River.

Graffiti is one of the most obvious and pervasive forms of cultural subnature, as it intentionally violates established behavioral rules, which is typically the motive behind doing it.   Graffiti’s least artistic variant–tagging (which some would argue isn’t even proper graffiti) is found all over Portland.  As creative as Portland is, most of our graffiti generally isn’t (compare us to cities like San Francisco or Melbourne, Australia).

What is far more interesting than the graffiti is the maintenance regimes deployed to cover up the cultural subnature and their unintended effects.  Portland instituted a no-tolerance graffiti policy in this district, with stiff fines and a graffiti removal regime that consists of painting over the vertical surfaces of buildings — hundreds of them.  Similar to the mowing of fields of weeds, the traces of this process reveals the city as contested terrain; the urban as a series of spatial events consisting of a back and forth contested exchange in surfacing and resurfacing the vertical fields of the city:

This unintentional patterning of the city was superbly documented in Matt McCormick’s Sardonic short film The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal (2002).  The film compares the unintended artistic results to post modern minimalist art and Russian suprematism.  Brilliant.

It’s remarkable to see that 8 years later the visual battle between perceived order and chaos is still occurring in the same manner and the layers of paint just keep accumulating.

The interaction is endless

Not even trying  to match the color

Unintended Rothko


Mixed media


  1. Great post! I’ve recently been thinking about this side of graffiti–the clean up wars–and how it could be more effective. I wonder what would happen if the cities assumed that graffiti was not so much a result of an individual action, but more like a prerogative of the space in which the graff occurs. Instead of reverting the walls back to their pre-graff state, why not “buff” them with more art?
    Consider it a bonus that this would mean employing artists of all kinds–which can’t be bad, no?

  2. interesting observation. you’re right, most of those layered swatches are more interesting than individual tags or whatever.

    are other actions treated in the same way? (skateboarding, or planting, or squatting)

    is there no threshold graffitti can pass beyond which it is embraced?

  3. Perhaps the next logical step would be to skip street art, skip graffiti, and skip tagging, and just start painting crude blocks of paint on walls.

    How would anyone cover these things up? To cover it up, you would repeat the action of the vandal/artist, and it would look essentially the same.

  4. fucking awesome. then it really is just about the image of graffiti, not graffiti itself.

  5. “….and just start painting crude blocks of paint on walls….”
    A sort of graffiti camouflage, where the marking assumes the form of the control mechanism, bringing intention into the unintended compositions. Both the tagger and the cover up crews would no longer know who’s work is who’s. Really interesting idea. I wonder if its been tried, as we might not be able to tell. Customized urban wallpaper.

  6. I wonder if anyone has tried it.

    How would you ever know? Maybe I did some of the ones pictured.

    I love the anti-art power-play nihilism of it. It’s totally impossible to disentangle the vandalism from the art from the coverup. But you are inconveniencing someone.

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