One night a year, she shrouds herself in black clothing and dons comfortable shoes, perfect for stalking Tacoma streets under the blanket of night. Sometimes she wears a mask to obscure her identity, while other times she presents her face to passersby and pretends to be something she’s not in order to maintain her anonymity.
Some may be clever enough to discover her secret identity, while a scant few close family and friends may be privy to her legal name. But most of Tacoma just knows her by her nom de guerre, Ms. Monkey. This shroud of secrecy is neither nefarious nor illicit. Rather, Ms. Monkey protects her identity because she hides potentially breakable glass balls — or what she calls “Monkeyshines” — in public places.
In late 2003, Ms. Monkey was commiserating with an artist friend about the recent sensational news reports, oppressive gray skies, and ceaseless rain when the two hatched a plan to improve their moods.
“We thought maybe we should just make some stuff, hide it, and we could sit and watch someone find it,” she recalled. “We can get excited about them getting excited about finding it.”
Ms. Monkey’s friend (we’ll call him “Mr. Monkey”) had just made a brass stamp with a monkey head on it, but he hadn’t figured out how to use it yet. Moreover, the duo knew it could gain access to a hot shop, donated glass, and a crew of volunteers through the Tacoma art scene. Thus, 200 glass balls with monkey-head stamps were artfully made.
“We were trying to get them out in time for Christmas, but the Christmas season gets busy, and we all ran out of time,” Ms. Monkey said. “Then we looked at the calendar, and the next holiday was Chinese New Year. We thought, ‘What are the odds that it is the year of the monkey?’ and it was.”
Ms. Monkey and her crew decided to take a guerrilla approach to their project. First, artful and cryptic posters created by Tacoma artists Beautiful Angle teased the imminent arrival of the glass balls. Then, after each Monkeyshine had been hidden, the shiners started calling the media, explaining that something was going on in Tacoma having to do with glass.
“Police officers got wind of the media attention and started confiscating (the Monkeyshines) because they thought there had been a theft at the Museum of Glass. No one knew what was going on,” Ms. Monkey recalled. “It was really pretty fun.”
After Chinese New Year and the monkey business died down, Ms. Monkey started getting questions about whether Monkeyshines would pop up again with a Year of the Rooster symbol. “We decided if we are in for a penny, we’re in for a pound. If we’re going to do it for one more year, we need to do it for the whole cycle of 12 years,” she said.
Monkeyshines grew with each year, and a new animal graced each decorative glass ball. Year of the Dog, the Pig, the Rat, until 12 years had passed. At which point, Ms. Monkey and her cohorts decided to tackle another 12 years and started all over again with the now-iconic monkey.
“It has been so cool to watch it evolve,” Ms. Monkey said. “It has become such a sense of pride and community in Tacoma, and such a multigenerational, multicultural, multidenominational kind of bonding experience. People who know about it just love to do it; they take days off of work.”
The annual hunt became so popular by the end of the decade that other people started leaving their own gifts. The first, according to Ms. Monkey, was the Marble Man — aptly named for his penchant to hide glass marbles around Tacoma — whose name is now as synonymous with Monkeyshines as Ms. Monkey, herself. Other treasures hidden by like-minded individuals include shells, stuffed animals, silver dollars, and framed photos of historic Tacoma landmarks.
Additionally, Ms. Monkey’s email gets bombarded with letters of adoration. One letter stood out to her. “There’s a woman who hunted forever with her friend, and they never found anything. Then her friend died of cancer,” she recalled. “The next year, she was really depressed and didn’t want to go search. But she did, and she walked straight to a Monkeyshine. She swears her friend guided her there.”
This is a common theme throughout, Ms. Monkey said. People are always thanking her for the experience.
“The balls and the community gifts, those are the vehicles to get people out there. The gift is really just love,” she said. Chinese Lunar New Year begins on Feb. 16.
Special thanks to Tacoma furniture boutique TREE for allowing South Sound magazine to photograph Ms. Monkey in its showroom.