Sunday, June 25, 2017 This Week's Paper

Murals In Tacoma

// Art and history hit the wall

Vince Karwoski is the kid on the raft.

Plus One is the aerosol artist on the side.

“Explore” is the command in the rocks, and the hope behind the art at South Sheridan Avenue and 56th Street. The big-as-a-building scene was part of the grand finale of Tacoma Murals Project’s third season last fall.

There’s one more coming from that season’s roster. It was planned, but is not yet painted, along South Tacoma Way at 'C' Street, and will treat Sounder passengers to a better view than a wall full of gang taunts. When that piece of outside art is done, it will be the city’s 16th, counting downtown’s Graffiti Garage and First Creek’s safety barriers. That’s a lot of cool views, crime fighting and community building for the program’s $120,000 budget to date.

Vince and Pat Karwoski own Sir-Amick’s Studio at 5441 S. Sheridan Ave., the home of the 14th mural. Their building has been a landmark in the Mann neighborhood ever since it was a Safeway – the one Vince rode his bike to as a kid.

The big blank wall facing a parking lot has also been a tagger’s target and a muralist’s dream.

Last fall, the dream hit the wall.

“The Karwoskis applied to the Tacoma Murals Program in partnership with the neighborhood, taking advantage of the Call for Community Walls that are targets of graffiti and blight,’” said Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride.

As one might expect of people in the ceramics business, the Karwoskis like art, even art on the edge.

As one might expect of lifelong Tacomans, they were thrilled to get in on a project that could catch the neighborhood’s history before it drifted out of mind. They said sure, think away, talk away, paint away.

Before they met with the residents, the artists thought about the site’s history in Tacoma’s edgy art. Since the early 1990s, the Karwoskis allowed street artists to paint a metal storage container on the east side of the lot.

“This guy used to come and ask my dad if he could paint it,” said Lorna Karwoski. “My dad always said yes.”

The guy was Matthew Chom Jones, an aerosol artist who went by the name of Plus One.

“He was a cup half full kind of guy,” said Mural Project artist Yvette Simone, 52. “People called him Plus One, the Negativity Killer.”

He painted an homage to a woman named Vanessa in 2005, then, at 25, died in an accident. The arresting Vanessa, his last work, remains a Mann Neighborhood landmark.

Before they met with the artists, residents thought about want they wanted their adjacent mural to say.

Their neighborhood’s history, much of it buried under Interstate 5, topped the list.

“A lot of people really got involved, people who grew up here and grew old here, too,” said artist Kenji Stoll, 21. “It was a really tight-knit community… A family neighborhood.”

Then I-5 changed everything.

The land over which it hums was once a great swamp.

Kids built rafts and floated off on adventures in its ponds. They rode their bikes over the high ground, built forts and collected all manner of amphibians and reptiles. Salamanders were a big deal.

Fill and paving buried the wetlands. Time was burying the memories of them until the Mann residents and artists began collaborating.

“The driving challenge is to create something that is accountable to the neighborhood,” said artist Chris Jordan, 25, after the meetings.

Vince Karwoski nailed the theme when he talked about the way people used to walk through the neighborhood: They looked up, met their neighbors’ eyes, stopped to talk, noticed trouble soon enough to squash it. They explored.

The mural has got them doing it all again.

Simone was on a scaffold, fixing a piece of sky on a sunny October day, when the structure jiggled.

“There was a man climbing up with an apple and a banana for me, so I could keep painting,” she said.

The work site was a lunch-rich environment, thanks to neighbors who brought gumbo, pulled pork, mac and cheese, coffee, donuts, fruit and salads.

“They thanked you a lot,” said artist and lunch beneficiary Chelsea O’Sullivan, 27.

“Kids wanted to join in,” said Simone. “A girl walking by asked ‘Can I help?’ I told her there was no pay, and she said, ‘I just want to help.’”

That girl’s work is on the wall.

“People from all walks and backgrounds contributed,” O’Sullivan said.

That broad sense of ownership protects the 15 murals citywide. In three years only two people have insulted a neighborhood by tagging one.

The absence of criminal spray paint is one tangible way to measure Tacoma Murals Project’s success.

“This program was designed to combat gang tagging, vandalism and blight,” said director McBride.

But its real strength is in the intangibles.

When people know each other and work on a common project, the neighborhood is tighter and safer.

When volunteers manage the prep, which around town has included washing, laying on the base coat and whacking a hillside block of blackberries, blight wanes.

When kids are welcome to make a big, beautiful change that everyone can see, they earn pride, and harden their defenses against crime.

“They bring beauty,” McBride said of the murals. “They bring the community together.”

They make us want to see more of what Tacoma is all about.

Apply for a mural by May 28!

The City of Tacoma is inviting community groups to apply for a mural on a specific site that has been the target of vandalism.

Neighbors must have a wall, and the willingness to volunteer on the project.

The city will provide supplies, artists and technical assistance.

For more information, visit