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Portland Embarks on 'Graffiti Busting' Campaign

Tom Porter
Jason Bruns busts some graffiti on a wall in downtown Portland.

PORTLAND, Maine - One of the state's largest commercial real estate agencies announced today that it's contributing $45,000 toward an effort to help tackle the worsening problem of graffiti in Maine's largest city.

The Graffiti Buster van gets to work on a section of paint-covered wall in downtown Portland.  After initially applying chemicals to the paint, 17-year-old Justin Bruns takes aim with a high-pressure water hose, powered by a motor in the back of the van.

He expects this particular piece of graffiti - measuring about 6 feet by 6 feet - will be gone in about 15 minutes.

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
Jason Bruns makes progress removing graffiti from a wall in downtown Portland.

"It's actually extremely easy," he says. Which is a good thing, because Bruns and his fellow "graffiti busters" are out there on the streets of Portland about four hours a day at the moment, he says. "It makes me feel better knowing that I'm helping to clean up my town a little bit, and making it more appealing to other people."

Graffiti Busters is a program run by LearningWorks, a Portland-based non-profit which aims to help at-risk youth by providing them with opportunities for work, education and development. Since it was set up 21 years ago, it's removed about 500,000 square feet of graffiti, says Chief Executive Ethan Strimling.

But Strimling, who spoke at a press event in Portland's Old Port Wednesday morning, says the job of Graffiti Busters, which gets $35,000 a year from the city of Portland, is getting more difficult. "Graffiti has really expanded in the community a lot, and it's become harder and harder for us to keep up with."

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
Left to right, Ethan Strimling of LearningWorks, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and Drew Sigfridson of CBRE/The Boulos Company.

For example, he says, this year Graffiti Busters - which operates between April and November - has so far received nearly 170 removal requests. Last year it had 137 requests for the entire season. "And because of that, we've been trying to figure out how to get some additional resources," Strimling says.

Enter commercial real estate developers CBRE/The Boulos Company, which has pledged $45,000 to Graffiti Busters - enough to enable a second truck to hit the streets.

"I think it's just important to show the city and the community that we support having a clean appearance for the city," says Drew Sigfridson, managing director of the Boulos Company. He says more contributions could come in future years, depending on the success of the program.

"You have one chance to make a good impression in the city of Portland," he says, "so when we have 8.5 million visitors coming, we have potential business owners to invest in the city, we want it to look as good as it could possibly look."

Tom Porter: "Have potential clients said they've been put off by it?"

Drew Sigfridson: "Yes. And I always hear from clients that own buildings in town that, 'We removed graffiti last night, this morning we go and open the door and there's graffiti again, right at the entryway.' "

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan is encouraged by the invovement of the Boulos Company, which he says does more than just help the city's appearance. "This project has the added benefit of providing job skills and a learning experience for young people that have been inolved with the criminal justice system, so it has a very positive community impact."

Not everyone however views graffiti art as abject vandalism. Art teacher Aimee Carmella is a graduate of the Maine College of Art who has studied the issue. "Really you need to think about - what does street art do? Does it take away or add to a community? What kind of discussion does it foster?"

Carmella admits that some graffiti is undeniably negative or offensive and should be removed. But, she says, it can also be a positive sign of a thriving urban sub-culture.