Graffiti no longer welcome at 3 Tacoma garages

TACOMA — Only a handful of aerosol artists were spraying at the Graffiti Garages early Sunday afternoon, and beginning next month there will be none.

Sanctioned by the city and the building owners since 2008, and known to an elite cadre of underground “aerosolists” before then, the parking garage complex on lower Broadway in downtown Tacoma between South Seventh and South Ninth streets had become known as a Sunday gathering space.

No more.

A notice attached to a post told the story: “We feel that we have no choice but to restrict the site to its original use as a commercial parking garage.”

“I really like it. It’s kind of a bummer it’s being closed down,” said Derek Robertson, 20, a visiting painter from Minnesota.

The walls of the three garages are 12 feet high, the garages themselves more than 100 feet deep. The ceilings are dotted with black mold, and those walls are filled with layers of years of art — painted, then painted over, then painted over again and again.

Some images are pictorial: A face, 8 feet tall, black-and-white beside a snippet from Shelley’s “Ozymandias”: “Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare.”

There are ducks depicted, plus Dilbert and Don Knotts, Krazy Kats and a sultry, bare-bottomed mouse. Some images, most images, comprise the arcane: fat letters, words from the language of aerosol art, initials, KAC, A3, DMS.

Colors abound, rainbows on acid, geometry gone wild.

Wind cuts through the chicken wire that covers the openings where glass windows once stood.

“I’ve been painting since this place was opened,” said an aerosolist named Travis, who preferred not to offer his last name.

“I started painting here in 2004. Artists were invited to come here by other artists. Then a lot more people came in. Then they shut it down. It’s not the artists that are causing the problems, it’s the people who come to hang out.”

“It’s not the aerosol artists that are doing anything wrong,” echoed Amy McBride, city of Tacoma arts administrator. “Extra activities happened, rap battles, events. Police reported activity, drag racing. Part of the owner’s concerns, and the city’s concern, is about enforcement for the negative activity.

“I hope the artists take these last two Sundays to do their best work. It’s one slice of who we are, celebrated and integrated into the fabric of our downtown. I think it’s exciting. I think there’s a lot of talent. It’s positive energy.”

“For me, the garages are a really cool asset to our city,” said Kenji Stoll, program administrator with the Tacoma youth arts group Fab 5.

“It’s bringing life to downtown,” he said. “I would disagree with the disruption. I would agree that it does bring people down there. It gathers community. It serves as a place where we can showcase the best of the best of what we can offer. That space has people coming from, seriously, all over the nation. It’s a place where people can get together and do what they do without having to look behind their backs.”

The garages are owned and administered by Lorig Associates, a real estate development firm based in Seattle.

“We started in 2008 from a request from an artist group and the city of Tacoma,” said President Alison Lorig.

“Basically what has occurred is that it got a little too popular and a little too hard to manage,” she said. “We found that people were having DJs in the garage. It sort of became an enormous gathering place.”

There were, she said, “liability concerns.”

And now “it will go back to being a parking garage. We tried really hard. The graffiti artists don’t have a large organization to help police it.”

The firm, she said, does have development plans for the site, and the building will eventually be demolished.

Which with a touch of irony fits within the aerosol raison d’etre.

Paint, destroy, build, demolish. Never is forever, as Ozymandias should have known.

“I want this piece to go away,” said Travis, spraying a line. “This only marks where my mind was on a particular day. Change is good.”

But now, he said, as the garages close, artists will have little outlet for their expressions.

“There’s nowhere else to go,” he said. “Vandalism rates will go up. You take away something like this, people are going to find a place to put their stuff — under a bridge, on the side of a small business.

“In a city, graffiti is its own entity. If it is not allowed to be, it will be.”

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