Like a graphic novel in the unfolding, the 60-ft. mural at 2143 Martin Luther King Jr. Way depicts neighborhood characters held aloft by futuristic flying machines, car-size yellow daisies, and at its core, a dreamy-eyed African-American girl gazing at a friendly cartoon slug. It took Tacoma artist Jeremy Gregory and his team of three muralists five weeks to transform the wall of the abandoned building into a work of public art, and an energizing symbol for the Hilltop neighborhood.
The work is part of an innovative City of Tacoma mural project aimed at reclaiming neglected and illegally tagged buildings across the city with art created by professional artists and their “student teams” (team leaders are paid; the latter receive a stipend and free on-the-job training).
Community input to discuss ideas for the massive Hilltop work was encouraged, but only Gregory and a local businessman, Eric Crittendon, attended the kick-off meeting. The sparse turnout was both “awesome – and it sucks!” laughs Gregory, explaining that while the situation allowed him unexpected artistic freedom, he had anticipated more local support. Over time though, he says, the community thoroughly endorsed the project, including kids, homeowners, businesses, and people of every age who followed progress with visits to the site. And Crittendon, vice-president of the Upper Tacoma Business Association, did express his opinion about the proposed art: “We just didn’t want another Mt. Rainier or a streetcar,” but a work that was specific to the neighborhood, and not a cliché. He says he is impressed with the result.
In the 1920s, Tacoma’s Hilltop district was a thriving business area, with a streetcar running along K St. (now MLK Way) to S. 23rd St. Neighborhood enterprises included a car dealership, drug store, meat market, shoe repair, bakery and barbershop – not to mention 17 small groceries and ethnic food shops between S. 11th & S. 23rd streets alone. Times change, and the area fell into hard times, but it has seen new development in recent years. The Tacoma Community and Economic Development Department is including the MLK corridor in its master plan for creating eight new, mixed-use centers around the city. The Hilltop Mural may be a rallying point for revitalization.
Jeremy Gregory is a full-time artist, and he draws a darkly humorous monthly column for City Arts Magazine (Tacoma edition) called True Grit. Follow this multi-talented artist’s work and find out about upcoming events on his blog.