Breathing Life into Tacoma

Three local muralists share the inspirations behind the larger-than-life paintings they created on boarded-up businesses.

In March, as people headed home and businesses were forced to close their doors, watching storefronts disappear under sheets of plywood was one of many difficult reality checks that hit home the largeness of the COVID-19 crisis.

And, almost immediately, this reality check was paralleled by another, more hopeful one, embodying community and light as local artists painted bright murals on the plywood to remind passersby that we have the strength to weather this storm.

In Tacoma, the effort to do so has been multi-pronged, with Spaceworks — a city and chamber resource program to support artists and small business owners — leading the effort to commission artists to paint “rapid murals.” It was funded through the city’s Tacoma Creates program. Also, some artists and small businesses acted independently, and through word of mouth, to decorate the large blank slates that lined so many streets.

“This instantly transformed a pretty bleak scene into a public gallery that could be viewed safely from cars, or by (those) on their daily walks,” said Gabriel Brown, artscapes coordinator for Spaceworks. “The response from the public was immediate. Countless social media posts showed people expressing pride for their city and (giving) words of support for small businesses.”

Here are some of the murals that have brought joy to our walks around town that have become so common and necessary as we hunker at home. We’re looking forward to plywood coming down and doors reopening, but in the meantime, the hopeful art dotting the city reminds us to keep moving forward, one step at a time.

Curtis Ashby

“I’ve been working with Bleach on Pacific Ave. for a while now — I have a clothing brand called Northwest Til Death, and they carry some of my shirts. They recently did a remodel, and I painted a couple of big birds inside their building then. And so, when they decided to board up, they reached out to me and asked me to do a mural. Spaceworks also reached out, too, and I ended up doing three: Bleach, Dunagan Brewing Co., and Black Eagle Tattoo. When I was painting the mural at Black Eagle Tattoo, we had people driving by and honking, leaning out their windows and telling us that they loved it. You know, stuff like that. It’s been really great to get some good feedback that way.”

Curtis Ashby

Courtesy Curtis Ashby

Saiyare Refaei

“My friends who own Stocklist Goods downtown reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in painting a mural for their storefront while it was boarded up. And I worked with Spaceworks, too, to do designs for Channing Baby & Co. and London’s Salon. I wanted to focus on painting tulips and daffodils because festivals around both of those are big things that people look forward to each spring that we just kind of lost this year. So, I wanted to bring those flowers downtown and remind people of all the things that are still beautiful here. I also included little excerpts from poems I’ve written, just trying to bring some love to the space and remind people to share their love with others.”

Saiyare Refaei

Photo by Liz Van Dyke

Mindy Barker

“I started doing public work, mostly murals, in 2008. I’ve done three murals to cover up businesses: one in Opera Alley at the Union Salon, another on Commerce at Straight from Philly, and on Sixth Ave. at High Maintenance Salon. I was approached by Gabriel Brown through Spaceworks and submitted three different designs. I think the Rapid Mural program has been amazing for the businesses, just in being able to look like they’re still alive. I know the store owners are happy about it, and I think people walking around who can see the murals are happy to see them, too. The idea with the design is that it shows love radiating out — showing how we can express love in a lot of ways from a far distance.”

Mindy Barker

Photo by Hushed Revelry Photography

is an assistant editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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