Photographer Turns Graffiti Cleanups Into Abstract Photos

Parking lots exhibiting Rothko and Diebenkorn paintings in Portland Oregon? That’s what I encountered during the Covid Pandemic of 2020.

Like everyone, I had to change my usual routines in 2020. After the closure of gyms and other forms of exercise, my wife and I started taking long walks through various neighborhoods of Portland, Oregon. It was on these walks that I first noticed this interesting phenomenon.

Like many urban areas, Portland has a fair amount of graffiti. There are truly beautiful murals and graphics, which by their lack of any marring or damage, seem respected by the public and even by those who owned the walls on which this art appeared. Over a long span of time, no one graffitied on these pieces, and property owners didn’t paint them over. They were art for the public, and were appreciated.

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

There is another form of graffiti that is less appreciated by the public and especially by those who owned the walls on which they appeared. These were created by people as a form of self-expression from someone, maybe a political statement, an illustration or design, or their stylized tag (signature). It is this graffiti that led directly to the accidental creation of the abstract expressionist paintings I encountered.

When property owners felt compelled to paint over the graffiti they found offensive or unattractive, they’d use whatever paint they had on hand, or whatever paint they could get cheap. At first glance, it appears there was little thought about color and the eventual appearance. But the owner or ultimate painter did have to decide just how much of it they’d paint over. Would they just barely cover it or paint a more pleasing size or shape? I wonder just how much thought they gave to the process.

The walls themselves had diverse textures and patterns that added to the appearance of the paintings. Smooth poured concrete or cinderblock walls lent themselves to painted polygons that were more defined with clean squared edges. Walls made of brick often had a looser, less refined appearance. Although there were exceptions, some smooth walls were a mess. The walls themselves added elements of interest, their brick or block pattern, windows, signage, and even the ground they stood on yellow stripes for parking spots.

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

A battle of wills between the graffitist and the property owner played out as layer upon layer of crude rectangles would be laid over each new layer of graffiti. This resulted in colorful rectangles on top of or adjacent to other colorful rectangles. I could not help but notice and consider how this unintended collaboration could yield what was, ultimately, art.

For my part, I’d take note whenever I passed a promising wall, usually taking a snap of it with my cellphone, intending to return later better equipped to photograph it. Eventually, I just started to take a serious camera with me on every walk and do an initial capture, fearing this scene might be painted over before I could return a few days later.

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

This next time, I’d bring a tripod and a choice of lenses in order to photograph this art more deliberately, when the light would be better or the parking lot would be empty. I’ve gotten to a point where I know virtually all the graffiti in every parking lot in Portland west of the Willamette River. These excursions and the resulting photographs developed into a substantial project. To date, there are over 100 images in this portfolio.

But did I create this work or am I purely a curator of the work of others?

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

To be fair, none of these images are exactly as they appear on their walls. The camera’s software interprets the colors and contrasts and I in turn interpret it even more. I might emphasize a certain color or saturation, bring out the differences between values, and of course I chose the cropping of the scenes. Then again, my searching for these scenes and then collecting them into a body of work is more the act of a curator I would think. And what about the other collaborators? What did they bring to the final piece?

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

Each graffiti artist contributed to the work by their choice of location, the position on the wall, the size and shape of the graffiti, and the layering of new graffiti over old. And this was not the work of just one graffiti artist, this had to be the work of many. And for all of them no trace remains of their handiwork, their efforts acted merely as an underpainting. But without them, there would have been no basis for the final work. Like with all artists, their intent was one of self-expression, possibly political or merely just to make their mark on the world.

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

The property owners or managers contributed to the work by their accidental choice of paint color, their decision regarding shape, and when to apply new paint to new graffiti. Their intent was purely one of utility, to cover what they found unsightly with something a little less unsightly. You can wonder how much thought was given to aesthetics. At some point did they think to themselves, “That looks about right, or should I do more”?

I have likely photographed at least 100 walls. Some walls were so large that they offered several compositions. I wonder, how many graffiti artists and how many property managers made their marks on these walls? I assume that there were many more graffiti artists than property managers, and quite prolific were they. All of these contributors have never met, and in turn, I have never met any of them. But in the end, they created something far more interesting than just another blank urban wall. I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder, but to my eyes, these strangers created art.

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

The Unintentional Collaboration of Strangers

Almost two years after I started this project, I’m familiar with almost every blank or painted wall in Portland, or at least on the west side. As I drive through town, I say to myself, and sometimes out loud, “got that one!”

Some of those I captured have been graffitied again, and when they get covered up, perhaps there might be a new image available to me. But sadly, too many of these walls have been painted over entirely, so for now there’s no immediate opportunity on these blank canvases. But maybe if I wait a while…

If you wish to see more of these images, they can be found in the “Paint” portfolio on my website. There you’ll also see a wide range of other images.


About the author: Brian Kosoff is a landscape and still life photographer from Portland, Oregon. Kosoff’s work often approaches scenes as if they are paintings and his expansive portfolio features images that bleed the line between modern and abstract. More from Kosoff can be found on his website.

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