PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — If you don’t know Alex Chiu by his name, you may know him by his art.

Chiu’s murals can be seen at the Portland International Airport, a TriMet MAX stop, the Department of Community Justice and many other places throughout the Rose City.

However, Chiu hasn’t always done murals.

While studying visual arts at UC San Diego in the early 2000s, he was more focused on comic book art and cartoons. He and his wife, who he met in college, traveled to many comic book shows throughout the West Coast.

And in 2012, they decided that they wanted to live outside of Southern California — which is what brought them to Portland. The couple never expected to live in the city for more than just a couple of years. Yet, in the past decade, they’ve started a family and established their careers in Portland.

For years after the big move, Chiu worked in arts education. This all changed when his wife became a masters student and full-time librarian, so he became a stay-at-home dad.

His first TriMet mural opportunity came when he was at home full-time in 2017. That’s when he decided to find childcare so he could also find time to create his art.

“[TriMet was] trying to redevelop the blue line,” Chiu said. “It was a pretty big job, but it opened up a lot of doors and at the time, it really was a politically, racially charged period. Trump was doing his election circuit and I really wanted to take my art more seriously and focus on my own personal experience and explore what it meant to be a second-generation Chinese American person — but also at the time, I just wanted to highlight communities of color and leaders of color in the area.”

Chiu said that TriMet was open to his pitch of highlighting different cultures in his art, but some onlookers at the bus stops had less than positive views. Despite people’s differing opinions of Chiu’s work, he continues to create art that tells a story about Portland’s culture and history. 

“I really developed a passion for documentary [in school],” he said. “I really enjoyed the idea that it gave me access to a culture that I didn’t understand… I feel like I approach mural work and community engagement the same way that I approached documentary, where I was able to learn about people’s stories and sort of tell their story by painting it on the wall.”

The work that he’s done doesn’t merely teach him about other people’s stories. It also encouraged him to embrace his own Chinese culture. 

Chiu’s parents immigrated to the U.S. years ago, and he said there was once a point when he hadn’t felt a lot of cultural pride. But now that his parents are in their 70s and he’s raising two children of his own, he has learned the importance of sharing his heritage.

He’s proud of his artwork in and around Portland, but he said the connections and memories he makes with the community have exceeded the art itself. One piece that stands out for Chiu is the mural he made for a neighborhood boba shop after it was vandalized. The depicts his youngest daughter, and she’s always happy to drive past it.

Chiu’s youngest daughter poses at his mural outside of Just Tea. (courtesy of Chiu)

“The smaller stories and building these relationships with local people has meant more to me than the artwork in a lot of ways. And I can be really self-deprecating because I don’t want to see work that I’ve done in the past. It might be good. I might like it. But I’m always like, ‘Oh, I want to focus forward and I don’t care about the work that I’ve done before,’ but I am proud of the relationships I’ve built.” he said.