The possibility of stumbling upon functional and aesthetic artwork when turning a corner or ascending a set of steps is a colorful draw of walking around Tacoma. Seeking out sculptures, murals, and alternative and functional art by local artists and businesses is simply a part of day-to-day life for downtown denizens, but can also be an afternoon activity all on its own (especially with a stop to support a local business or two). Consider walking or driving through this mile-long stretch of murals and sculptures in Downtown Tacoma and further into the Theatre District to take a closer look at some of the public art the city has to offer.
Starting at the cross of South 12th Street and Pacific Avenue, a staircase leads west one block through Pacific Plaza. Inches away from the railing, the Projecting Drop was created by Jill Anholt a decade ago, using tile and stainless steel to form a wave and water drop depiction of a snippet of Tacoma’s aquatic history.
The bright primary and pink colors of the 12th Street Hill Climb undoubtedly catches eyes at the top of the Pacific Plaza staircase, across Commerce Street and the Link Light Rail tracks. Susan Robb combined form and function in this painted mural that leads to another set of steps. Peak nearby for a traffic box vinyl wrap and TV screens hosted by Spaceworks Tacoma.
One more staircase across Broadway Plaza flows into two more murals on the concrete walls. The Red Tile and Blue Tile murals display photos from the LeMay car collection in ceramic, by Tacoma School of the Arts.
Heading north on Broadway toward Theatre Plaza, shades of blue painted by John Runnels reflect a play on words with “sea” descending a block down the sidewalk on South 11th Street. Around the corner, the Pierce Transit Plaza mural looks over a farmers market space, where a series of stainless-steel sculptures by the City of Tacoma also dot the plaza.
Continuing north on Broadway passed a collection of basalt rock sculptures by Douglas Granum, vibrant pinks, blues, and yellows are the background to Pacific Northwest native animals painted in detail by Mindy Barker last year. Various murals and wall paintings are scattered throughout the Theatre District, sometimes temporarily. Barker’s Water, Soil, Air is a mural representing natural elements through an otter, owl and baby bear.
Nearby, the historical Spanish Steps between Broadway and Commerce Street are another example of functional form. The bright white steps are over 100 years old but spectacular and meaningful enough for a 2011 rehabilitation.
Further east into the Theatre District on Opera Alley, a couple of businesses such as the Press Room and Grit City Grindhouse style their outsides with murals to match. Also, in Opera Alley are the vast community mural from 2013’s Downtown Block Party, designed by Liza Brown. Another block east, at the corner of St. Helens Avenue and South 7th Street, paint on the brick wall between the Mix and Puget Sound Pizza depicts a resplendent riverside café al fresco.
A dash north of Mandarin Antiques and an art supply store, Natalie Oswald and Joel Barber’s 75-foot-wide mural paints the Theatre District with crows and opera glasses, dancing cranes, a construction crane, and the waves beneath the port. The Goddess of Commerce bronze sculpture by Marilyn Mahoney has stood on a concrete block at the corner below since 2011, with a historical story on a plaque to boot.
A stone’s throw down St. Helens Avenue and just before South 2nd Street, King’s Book is not to be missed thanks to a sepia-tinted painting of browsing book worms on the side of the building. William Forrester painted the mural across the parking lot from another concrete-backed mural outside of Doyle’s Public House, referencing an old Guinness advertisement of a toucan on a standing compass point.
This mile-long stretch of public art is just a small fraction of what can be found during a stroll through town with eyes peeled for patches of color and aesthetic architecture. To help guide mini-tours through some of the various public sculptures and murals, the City of Tacoma and Pierce County Public Art agencies host an art directory map.