In the beginning, the Tacoma Murals Project took shape with modest aspirations. It slipped into Tacoma's culture in 2010 as part of Safe & Clean, the big program that brought us neighborhood cleanups, code enforcement on junky yards and cars, and new partnerships between residents and businesses bent on revealing Tacoma's inner beauty.
That inner beauty has jumped out and plastered itself all over town.
It's there in neighborhoods that are demonstrably safer and prettier. It's there is the 27 murals, including six new ones this year, that the project has sponsored. It's there in a new video, “True ( I Put My Heart Into It) by Hip Hop artists Rockwell Powers and DJ Phinisey. And it's there in bold and piratical celebrations built on music, art, cars, boats. You name it, Tacomans can find a way to have fun with it, especially if a mural emerges from it.
At the outset, the murals had a big, dull job: Battling tagging left by gangs and individuals with cans of spray paint and no sense of what's right.
They aced that assignment.
They have been remarkably resistant to tagging, said Amy McBride, the city's arts administrator. Only five of the 27 murals have needed repairs after being damaged by tagging. That's thanks in part to coatings that protect the original art, and in part to the spray artists' code of ethics.
“There's a difference between graffiti and gang tagging,” said Chelsea O'Sullivan, a veteran of six murals, including the one of a girl with water lilies and lanterns that she completed last year on the back wall of the Tacoma Buddhist Temple on Fawcett Avenue. “The graffiti standard is 'Don't put anything over this unless you can do something better.”
That did not save the scene on the East 43rd Street overpass.
“It was very pastoral. It got tagged pretty badly,” McBride said. “We repainted it once, then it was roll it out, or go with a more gritty style.”
Though it's not what the neighborhood wanted in the first place, the second version is working.
The other 26 paintings are examples of how the process can stretch both the neighbors and the artists.
Teamed up with cops and activists, residents pick the sites, nominating walls that attracted the spray paint vandals no one wants hanging around after dark.
“We choose based on need,” McBride said.
That explains the new brightness in formerly forlorn spots, like the bridge at the end of the Thea Foss Waterway, and up the esplanade at 11th Street, the base of the Murray Morgan Bridge.
Next, residents meet with the artists in what can be touchy negotiations over history and vision.
The aim, city reps explain, is to tell the story of the place.
“Some groups are very involved,” O'Sullivan said.
She has listened to tales of the swamp that attracted all kinds of kids and creatures where Interstate 5 now growls. That story's on the wall of Sir Amick's at South Sheridan and 56th Streets. She's heard the stories of one ethnic group after another settling at 6323 McKinley Avenue, and helped paint the tree that tells the tale.
And she's heard nothing.
“Some groups, it's like pulling teeth, until we show them the design, and they say, 'Oh no, we don't want that,'” she said. She declined to name them, though they surely remember the increasingly lively discussions that ended with the city calling in a moderator, a peacemaker.
“It's about managing expectations,” McBride said. “It's scary, trying to create that gracious space of creativity.”
Painting is a lot easier.
Once the wall gets its base coat, people come to watch the images emerging. The process draws all kinds of people – kids, business owners, homeless folks, parents.
That, said McBride, is when the project hits “that magical space of creativity and community.”
All that conflict and collaboration help build a healthy city, where people can disagree and talk it out and end up with signature art.
“It's one of the best programs the city offers,” said councilman Marty Campbell, who represents the mural-rich East Side. “It brings art into every neighborhood, and it turns walls from deficits into assets.”
It also gets people thinking about what they might do and say with their unlovely surfaces. The Murals Project has inspired art all over Tacoma and into Ruston.
Madame Butterfly and the craven Pinkerton turned up in Opera Alley after a Downtown Block Party. The Antique Sandwich Company commissioned Mary Mann's Salish mermaids. Johnny Depp is the Mad Hatter on Tacoma Avenue compliments of Patrica Lecy-Davis and Embellish.
This is about art of all kinds, and the way it tells the city's story from the heart, said Zach Powers, who works at the home-grown, home-owned The Grand Theater. As Rockwell Powers, he and his fellow Hip Hop artist DJ Phinisey released a video about that. Filmmaker, and Tacoma Film Festival director, Laura Campbell shot it against murals all over town.
“The video for 'True (Heart Into It)' is basically a showcase of the incredible work being done by the artists working in collaboration with the Tacoma Murals Project to bring to life walls throughout Tacoma,” Powers said. “I’ve been a fan for years of a lot of the artists who work with the program and had been looking for an opportunity to incorporate some of their work in a visual presentation of my music. The message of 'True' is very much about a lot of the same principles that I know a lot of local muralists and graffiti artists share, and images of completed murals as well as artists working on murals seemed to be a great marriage of audio and visual art.”
In a healthy city, art jumps over boundaries, and on its journey, invites everyone to join in.
The murals – giant and physically and intellectually accessible – are, as McBride said, “a way to create fertile ground for creativity.”
The Mural Project's 2014 works are:
Stadium Way, on 55 Broadway property, “Beyond the Bluff.” Artist Janice Warren.
Tahoma Associates, 1545 Tacoma Ave. Artist Mindy Barker.
Regent Properties, 1402 S. 11th St. Artist Chelsea O'Sullivan.
Earthwise, 628 E. 60th St. Artist Chris Sharp.
Sixth Avenue Speed Wash, 1318 Sixth Ave. Artist Jeremy Gregory.
Viet My, 775 S. 38th St. Lead artist Bob Henry, with Anthony and Daniel Duenas.
616 St. Helens Ave. Artist Natalie Oswald. Assistant artist Joel Barber.
1717 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma Buddhist Temple. Artist Chelsea O'Sullivan.
120 Tacoma Ave. N. Artist Janice Warren. Assistant artist Liza Brown.
43rd Street Bridge at East C Street. Artist David Long.
Dock Street Bridge at D Street. Artist Kate Cendejas. Assistant artist Chelsea O'Sullivan.
5016 A Street, Lighthouse Senior Center. Artist Yvette Simone.
2502 S. Commerce St. Artist team Chelsea O'Sullivan, Janice Warren and Liza Brown.
220 Puyallup Ave. Lead Artist, Chris Sharp. Artist team: Kate Cendejas, Yvette Simone and Janice Warren.
5441 S. Sheridan, Sir Amicks. Lead Artists: Kenji Stoll, Chris Jordan. Artist team: David Long, Yvette Simone, Chelsea O'Sullivan, Natalie Oswald.
6323 McKinley Ave. Lead artist Joni Joachims. Artist team: Kate Cendejas, Brian Hutcheson, Yvette Simone, Chelsea O'Sullivan, Janice Warren.
Retaining wall of 3200 Block of East L Street. Lead artists: Rachael Dotson and Jeremy Gregory. Artist team: Yvette Simone, Chelsea O'Sullivan and Natalie Oswald.
Cloverdale Park at East 56th Street and Pipeline, East 58th and Q streets and East 57th and S streets. Artists: Natalie Oswald, Kate Cendejas, Yvette Simone and Janice Warren.
5301 S. Orchard St. Lead artists: Rachael Dotson, Joni Joachims and Jeremy Gregory. Artist team: Liza Brown, Kate Cendejas, Brian Hutcheson, David Long, Mary McFarland, Laura Ospital, Chelsea O'Sullivan, Natalie Oswald, Yvette Simone, Shannon Wallace, Janice Warren.
South 84th Street and South Park Avenue. Lead artist Kelda Martinson. Artist team: Dionne Bonner, Brad Pugh.
2143 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Lead artist, Jeremy Gregory. Artist team: Kate Cendejas, Larine Chung, Jena Marks, Marlin Peterson.
5438 South Tacoma Way, Heritage Bank. Lead artist Rachael Dotson. Artist team, Michael Corcoran, Josh Everson, Jani Freimann, Trinda Love.
4009 S. 56th St., St. Vincent de Paul. Lead artists, Christopher Jordan, Kenji Stoll. Artist team: Alex Schelhammer, Christian Vicente, Ernesto Zamora, Tiffanny Hammonds, Kisha Rardin.
3804 Portland Ave. Lead artist, Chris Sharp. Artist team: Shanna Duncan, Asia Tail, Vasquez Gomez.
South M and 34th streets. Lead artist, Joni Joachims. Artist team: Brad Dinsmore, Rajaa Gharbi, Kathleen Gray, Tenold Sundberg.
723 Broadway, Graffiti Garages exterior. Artists: Kenji Stoll, Chris Jordan, Travis Galindo, Jared Haviland.
3513 E. Portland Ave., Portland Avenue Community Center. Lead artists: Rachael Dotson, Jeremy Gregory, Joni Joachims, Kelda Martensen, Chris Sharp. Artist team: Dionne Bonner, Kate Cendejas, Larine Chung, Mike Corcoran, Brad Dinsmore, Shanna Duncan, Josh Everson, Jani Freimann, Jill Frey, Rajaa Gharbi, Kathleen Gray, Alexandra Kerl, Trinda Love, Jena Marks, Marlin Peterson, Brad Pugh, Tenold Sundberg, Asia Tail, Patricia Vasquez Gomez.