What’s black and white and read all over? If you find yourself traversing the streets of the Gritty City, the answer to that old riddle might well be a rock. Painted with acrylics or marked up with permanent ink, a bevy of decorative rocks crop up somewhere new every day in places from Point Defiance to Hilltop.

Pierce College LogoThese fancy rocks are being planted high and low by a collective of crafty citizens. This art is meant to be discovered, and so stealthy artists post clues about their tiny treasures on a Facebook group called Tacoma Rocks. The concept is simple: using acrylic paint, sealant and the smooth face of a rock as a canvas, creative folk in Tacoma create pint-sized works of art to hide (and to seek!) in their communities.

It’s a curiously simple hobby that fosters a real feel-good vibe, and its popularity is growing exponentially in the South Sound. A Facebook search reveals rock painting groups in places like Port Orchard, Kitsap County and Bremerton, with more and more communities starting up every day. Many of these—including the Tacoma chapter—attribute their inspiration to posts shared or rocks discovered farther north in the painted rock mecca, Port Angeles.

Port Angeles resident Aisha Lesh started a community rock painting group in January 2016. This club of sorts began with modest numbers, but it didn’t take long for the simple idea to catch on in a big way. Within a month, the group’s guerilla art had attracted hundreds of followers, most of whom—like Tacoma Rocks founder Brooke Baker—discovered the idea entirely by accident.

Tacoma Rocks
Painted rocks inspire smiles in children and adults of all ages around Tacoma neighborhoods. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Rocks.

Brooke was visiting friends in Port Angeles around the same time Aisha’s group started to gain momentum. Brooke was out and about when she spotted something wonderfully peculiar in her path. A lost toy, perhaps? Lost keychain, maybe? When she picked this colorful mystery object up, she felt by its heft that it was a rock. A deliberately painted rock, at that. Examining this token from front to back, she found a sweet picture on one side and these simple instructions on the other: Share my photo on Facebook @ Port Angeles Rocks

Brooke was definitely curious and also, she says, touched. “There’s something really wonderful about finding something you didn’t know you were looking for,” she says. “It’s almost like someone made something special and left it just for you to find. It really brightened my day.”

She left the rock where she found it, but her piqued interest followed her home to Tacoma. The rest, as they say, is history. Brooke began painting for fun and hiding her creations, leaving them for others to find in the same organic way that she had. Soon her daughter, Katherine, wanted to get in on the act, and it wasn’t long until this Tacoma mom had made rock painting a real group effort, inviting her daughter’s friends to join in with painting parties after school.

Tacoma Rocks
Sometimes rocks are hidden in plain sight. Other times they’re a little trickier to find. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Rocks.

Brooke started a Facebook group for her Tacoma community in April of 2016. In less than a year, the group and its uplifting brand of unexpected artwork saw exponential growth. Twenty members grew to 200, which quickly grew to 2,000. At the close of 2016, the group had well over 3,000 registered members and counting.

Getting started is simple, Brooke tells us; not becoming addicted is the hard part. Children and adults describe rock painting as a sort of Easter egg hunt for all ages. Kids are delighted to find these artistic little nuggets out in the wild, and they love leaving a little surprise for someone else to find. Adults like Richard Olsen say that this is just the sort of unplugged activity he’s been hoping to find to take part in with his three grandchildren.

Richard doesn’t have a Facebook, but with the help of his daughter, her tech-savvy brood and Tacoma Rocks, this 78-year-old is finding a new way to feel involved in his community. “I don’t know what a Minecraft is and I didn’t understand how to Pokemon Go. My daughter has tried to get me to play geocaching before, but I don’t have a mobile phone. So when my grandson came to visit just bouncing off the walls, all excited to show me a rock with a drawing on it, I felt just as excited as he was. Not just because this is something…what’s the word…something analog that even I can do, but also because it is a rare thing to find something fun to do that brings people together like this whole Tacoma Rocks business has.”

Mandala Rock
Rocks vary in design since there are so many different people painting them. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Rocks.

The Olsen family reports that they’ve become more involved in their community vicariously through rock hiding and hunting. Richard feels closer to his grandchildren and relishes the chance to teach them about the importance of treating others—even strangers—with kindness. As an added benefit, he also says he’s felt more engaged with his neighbors since he picked this hobby up. The Olsen posse has even found a way to give back thanks to Tacoma Rocks, picking up trash at their local park when they’re out hiding their spoils. As Richard’s young granddaughter Emily put it: “I don’t want there to be trash where my rock lives because then it makes it less special.”

More than art and more than a wholesome pastime, Brooke says painting is a really cathartic way to unwind as well. In times of stress or struggle, rock painting enthusiasts say that the activity helps calm the turbulence life can throw their way. Some find painting therapeutic and calming; others find comfort in knowing that leaving these simple treasures behind wherever they go is bringing a little positivity to someone else’s day.

“My hope is that we spread a little joy every time someone finds a painted rock,” says Brook. “We like to think that it’s almost like hiding smiles.”

Tacoma Rocks
Devon Amber Anderson (center right) makes a family affair out of painting rocks to hide for strangers to find. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Rocks.

If you haven’t found one of these hidden gems in their natural habitat, a visit to the Tacoma Rocks Facebook group captures the essence of what to look for when you’re in a painted rock’s natural habitat. Brook says there aren’t many rules or guidelines to follow when you’re ready to get started, but there are a few suggestions.

Members are asked to follow a few simple guidelines:

  • Ask permission from business owners before you plant a rock on their property.
  • Don’t place rocks in state or national parks, and be sure not to take any without asking first either.
  • Be careful about where you place your rocks. Keep the safety of pedestrians and your fellow rock lovers (and groundskeepers, too!) in mind and avoid placing rocks in tall grass.
  • Elements in Washington being what they are, remember to seal your masterpiece once the paint dries. This will protect your artwork from the elements and also protect the environment from your artwork.

Not sure where to start or how to come up with ideas on what to create or where to find materials? Many turn to Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube for inspiration, and if you’re a little lost on where to find rocks and what kind of paint or sealant to use, Brooke has got you covered. Check out this handy post about the basics of rock painting supplies and protocol to try your hand at this clever new craze for yourself.

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