Nineteenth-century French artist Edgar Degas once said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” The definition of what constitutes art may have evolved since Degas’ day, but in 2016, street art is one of the most creative ways to put what an artist sees in front of droves of unsuspecting audiences. By placing thought-provoking images in the unexpected framework of everyday places, creators breathe a little fresh life into the streets, storefronts and alleyways that we see every day.
When it comes to Tacoma, there’s no artwork that pops quite like urban art. And the Gritty City is littered with opportunities to appreciate urban art in its natural habitat. Some of its communities, which have enlisted muralists to replace unsightly graffiti with inspiring artwork, are becoming more colorful than others by design.
The Tacoma Murals Project is a city-sanctioned collaboration between local artists and community-based services that started in 2010. It was designed to unmask Tacoma’s inner beauty and help elevate its neighborhoods — to create a sense of place and identity, spark vitality among residents, bring art to residential and business areas, and provide opportunities for residents to work together to improve their own communities. The Tacoma Mural Project has run consecutively since its inception and has contributed 27 murals to Tacoma’s sprawling urban landscape.
In 2015, the initiative took a pause on outdoor painted murals and began piloting a new Traffic Box Wrap Project. Twenty artists were selected to create original artwork for the large metal boxes that make their home on many street corners, and the city is currently in the process of installing those wraps. Cultural Arts Specialist for the City of Tacoma, Naomi Strom-Avila, says Tacomans should start seeing the boxes — fifty in all — pop up around Tacoma during spring 2016. There are also at least five new murals planned tentatively for 2016’s Tacoma Murals Project as well.
Naomi says the murals are as much about community involvement as they are about the artwork or the artist. “We do murals on commercial and public property that has demonstrated a need for reduction of blight and vandalism or public art to an area without much public art. Murals can’t solve all of these problems, but they are a relatively easy way to begin to address some of these issues,” she says.
“We are looking for highly visible sites — large walls, buildings near main intersections, entrances to neighborhoods, etc. But, we are also looking for community involvement — this is meant to be a community process and we want to know there are people in the neighborhood who are committed to the project — will help the artist connect with residents and business owners, will help with wall preparation, and will keep an eye out on the mural once it is done. The murals can be points of neighborhood pride and connection,” Naomi explains.
Each of the curated murals and traffic boxes showcases a very diverse range of themes and are unique to the communities in which they are sited. Once a site is chosen, communities vote on the available artists in the Mural Artist Roster, selecting the artist they consider the best fit. Once a muralist is elected, artists work with the communities they will be representing to learn more about the neighborhood — its history, future, hopes and points of pride — to develop a design proposal the artist feels reflects what they have seen and heard.
Naomi also recognizes a fallen bastion in Tacoma’s urban art scene, the Graffiti Garages, which closed officially in 2014 but were a widely recognized gallery for aerosol art until that time. “The Garages operated in partnership between the city and the property owner and were a landmark in Tacoma to allow legal graffiti in the space during certain days and times. The 2014 closure of the garages was the choice of the property owner. There is definitely a desire from many people in the community to see another such legal graffiti space open again, and it could be a possibility, but we first need a willing property owner to step forward.”
City-sponsored murals are by no means the only urban art to be found in Tacoma. There are ever-changing murals on 6th Ave., for example, between Fife and Oakes Streets. There are independent artists that create striking scenes from Ruston to University Place, like the iconic Alice and Wonderland mural on Tacoma Ave., courtesy of Patricia Lecy-Davis. Also, inspired in part by the Tacoma Murals Project, many businesses have kept the theme going. Places like Doyle’s Public House and the Antique Sandwich Company are ornamented with eye-catching commissioned murals that elaborate on this community-inspired trend.
While many street artists don’t clamor to identify themselves, muralist Jeremy Gregory appreciates his experience working with the Tacoma Murals Project. Jeremy has been a lead artist in the project since its start in 2010. “It’s been a huge part of building my brand,” he says. “People know me from the murals, and people contact me from the murals that are on the city website, besides just word-of-mouth from murals around the city,” he explains.
“I think it also affects the businesses in a positive manner,” Jeremy continues. “A well-done mural brightens the business and the neighborhood surrounding the business. When I first started in the mural program, I just thought it was cool to make my big piece on a wall, but then I watched as it achieved all the goals that it had planned to achieve: building the community, turning blight into something beautiful, bright and interesting, and helping to control graffiti.”
Businesses that participate also have glowing things to say about the Tacoma Murals Project. “The murals are a great feature, and one that I think Tacoma should be proud of,” says Chris Serface of Tacoma Little Theatre. “Our main mural on the Division side represents our history in the arts while our other mural, designed by the Grant Center for the Expressive Arts students, shows the nature of art growing and our community ties. All of the murals that we have seen drive people to the businesses and make them remembrance points. It’s also cut down on graffiti!”
If these murals have got the art snob within you all fired up, feel free to make a day out of checking out of the every-growing number of murals and traffic box sites listed on the map below. Also, in the words of Naomi Strom-Avila, “If you like the murals, let your Tacoma City Council representative know — it’s good to hear about the great things going on that you appreciate and want to see more of in our city.”