Published on September 20th, 2013 | by Kate Albert Ward


Street Color

Photography by Kali Raisl

I had already planned on titling this article “Street Color” when I came across a blog of the same name. Appropriately, the blog is all about yarn bombing, the guerrilla application of knitted or crocheted yarn to public fixtures. Yarn bombing is not new to Tacoma, but a recent burst of crochet work has added a spectrum of color along the sidewalks of in the 6th Ave Business District. This is one of several public art works – sanctioned and unsanctioned – that have recently been added to the city landscape.

I find three instances, including the yarn bombing, particularly interesting for their shared use of bright colors to call attention to the impact we have on our environment, and in turn, the impact of that environment  on us. Each example is vastly different, demonstrating the wide currency of their common theme.

Color Bombs

In front of Marrow, this is one of the earliest yarn bombs to show up on 6th Ave.

In front of Marrow, this is one of the earliest yarn bombs to show up on 6th Ave.

Reminiscent of nutty Aunt Fanny’s crocheted stockings, whimsical tubes of colorful yarn now envelope many of the bike racks along 6th Avenue between Alder and Prospect. Through investigative reporting, the Tacoma News Tribune just revealed that they have discovered the identity of the 6th Ave. yarn bomber. Over the last several weeks, Kassie Mitchell, has been adding crocheted wraps, one-by-one, to the bike racks along 6th Ave.

Many of the coverings take inspiration from the nearby businesses through the choice of colors and sometimes crocheted representations of what can be found inside the buildings– for example, pizza for Medi’s, doughnuts for Legendary Doughnuts, and a bundle of cash for TAPCO Credit Union. Unfortunately, the hot dog that once graced the bike rack in front of the Red Hot has been stolen.

The too-tempting Red Hot hot dog before it was stolen.

The too-tempting Red Hot hot dog before it was stolen.

There is nothing like seeing a calorie-laden food item on a bike rack to make you consider riding a bike to-and-from the 6th Ave business district in order to balance out the consumption of the delicious indulgences found there. The bright yarn on otherwise vacant bike racks mocks drivers as they look for parking along the busy stretch of road. “You really should have ridden your bike.”

Fueling more thoughtfulness, Mitchell’s chosen medium is traditionally associated with femininity. This has been commented upon widely in reference to yarn bombing as a style of street art because graffiti and other forms of guerrilla art are dominated by men. In this frame of mind, when I see Mitchell’s cheerful additions to the bike racks, I am reminded that men outnumber women when it comes to cycling as well. I hope that the yarn bombing will encourage both women and me to ride their bikes more.

Colors of the American and Mexican flags cover two of the three bike racks in front of Masa, who serves "flavors of Mexico made with the freshest Northwest ingredients."

Colors of the American and Mexican flags cover two of the three bike racks in front of Masa, who serves “flavors of Mexico made with the freshest Northwest ingredients.”

Mitchell’s fancy bike-rack sleeves are continuing to pop up along 6th Ave., highlighting for us new thoughts and spots. When not in the neighborhood, you can keep an eye on what Mitchell is up to through her facebook page.

Colorful Planters

One-by-one, the planters along MLK Way have been getting a brilliant facelift. The new color comes from a collaboration between the City of Tacoma, the Hilltop Business District, and Fab-5. Located in the Hilltop Business District, Fab-5 is a nonprofit youth program that focuses on urban arts, such as graffiti and breakdancing. Using an Innovative Grant from the city, Fab-5 instructor Kenji Stoll has been leading a group of students through the process of painting the once-drab planters.

The students canvassed the neighborhood and local businesses to find out the needs and wants of those who would see the planters most. The students were requested to make the dull and plain pots vibrant and colorful, and to infuse their designs with the neighborhood’s history and cultural diversity. The students started sketching their ideas in mid-July and the resulting designs show a penchant for geometric patterns.

“Patterns speak to all cultures” points out Stoll. “A lot of the patterns are inspired by the architecture and neighborhood icons.”

MLK2The painted pots start at People’s Park and will stretch down to the police station on MLK Way by the time the Fab-5 team is done. The planters will contribute to a sense of community in the neighborhood by creating visual cohesion.

The new color casts a stark contrast to the lack of happy plants in many of the pots, but the plan is to replant them after the painting is done – new plants for new growth.

Color Wave

Elizabeth Gahan, Color Wave, 2013.

Elizabeth Gahan, Color Wave, 2013.

Though not in the streets like the previous examples, a new Spaceworks installation in the Woolworth windows participates in the conversation about street color and the environment. Elizabeth Gahan’s installation, Color Wave, consists of colorful geometric shapes formed into a landscape.

Gahan uses political and advertising signs, deconstructed to obliterate their original purpose and reduce them to swatches of color. With hues selected to grab our attention, the signs are made from plastic that has been specially treated to make them durable out in the elements. This means the signs cannot be recycled.

Gahan collects the signs at the end of campaign seasons, or gets rejects directly from the manufacturer, to create public installations such as the one we now see on the corner of South 11th and Broadway in downtown Tacoma. Once destined for a landfill, she transforms the signs into a scene inspired by nature.

“The line between what is ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ is blurred, while the displacement of organic materials by synthetic materials hints at a growing imbalance between the two,” says Gahan in her artist statement.

Detail of Color Wave by Elizabeth Gahan.

Detail of Color Wave by Elizabeth Gahan.

Gahan created Color Wave specifically for this installation, but when it comes down on December 19, she will hold onto the plastic so she can reuse them for future work. As long as these signs are created to last forever for temporary sales, promotions, and political runs, Gahan will have a surplus of materials to work with.

To read more of Gahan’s statement and see images of Color Wave lit up at night, visit the Spaceworks blog. And be sure to check out Elizabeth Gahan’s website to see the public art she has installed across the country, including Chromatic Crystallization currently on view in Westlake Park in Seattle.

When you go see Gahan’s installation, be sure to head up the road to 11th and Market to see the new Spaceworks murals by Mindy Barker, Kristin Giodiorno, and Jeremy Gregory.

Coloring Outside the Lines

Public art is the perfect platform for sparking conversations about where we live and our environment. We can talk about what kind of city we want to inhabit– one with vibrant neighborhoods, clean streets and air, accessible, and so on– but the three examples above replace this palaver with a powerful visualization, using the brightest colors in their palette. Their brilliant hues demand our attention and ask us to think about what color we can bring that will help shape this place we call home.

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About the Author

A writer for Post Defiance, Kate has done freelance writing for the Museum of Glass, The South Sound User's Guide, and 19th-Century European Paintings at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Kate’s previous experience includes working as the Kress Foundation Interpretive Fellow at the Portland Art Museum, and as an Adjunct Assistant Professor for Portland State University. Kate currently works at Hilltop Artists, a youth development program that uses glass arts to connect young people from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds to better futures.

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