Fab-5 Ups the Ante with FABITAT

“The Motherboard” by Fab-5. Commissioned by the Intel Corporation, April 2010.

The City of Tacoma has a surprisingly cozy relationship with graffiti art, one that is embraced in many aspects by Mayor Marilyn Strickland, the Tacoma Arts Commission and a range of community organizations. More importantly, it is supported by members of a discerning public who are able to distinguish between the kind of deft, freestyle wall spraying (e.g., mural painting) that helps snatch buildings back from the edge of urban blight, from the type that illegally defaces properties, scaring the neighbors.

Maestros in the making: Fab-5 students choreograph a live "scratch" routine on turntables.

One of the most stunning local examples of sanctioned graffiti is The Garages on Tacoma’s Antique Row – an organically mutating, covered-parking-lot-slash-art-gallery where for years taggers and commuters have coexisted peacefully. In 2008, enforcement officials deemed The Garages’ surreal artworks “graffiti” in violation of City code, and the building’s owners, Lorig & Associates, were ordered to paint them over. But through the efforts of the property owners, local nonprofit Fab-5, and Tacoma’s Safe and Clean Team, in 2009, The Garages’ three large parking bays were legally reopened to artists working under the classification of “free form painting.”  Such aerosol paint-friendly venues are known in street parlance as “free walls.” Far from becoming a magnet for gang activity, as detractors feared, The Garages have instead become Tacoma’s most beguiling, unsung museum hosting the explosive yet phantom-like imagery (here today, gone tomorrow) of some of the country’s most skilled street artists. And, you can still park there.

Not a blank slate: a community effort saved The Garages' murals (many created by unknown artists), from oblivion.

Eddie Sumlin, Chris Jordan and Kenji Stoll form the core of the art group known as Fab-5; they are best known for their color-slashed, acidic graffiti murals that cover indoor/outdoor walls all over town. A fourth member, Program Associate Katie Lowery, is the group’s strategic and administrative lead.

Spaceworks Tacoma supports Fab-5’s goals, which extend beyond physical walls: The non-profit was established in 2000 to provide local youth with mentoring in arts related to urban hip-hop culture. According to its website, “In 2005, responding to the lack of relevant creative outlets for underserved youth (especially youth of color) Fab-5 created L.I.F.E. (Living In Free Expression) — an intensive series of urban arts workshops designed to allow youth to develop and explore their unique voices through a variety of different urban arts mediums (DJing, legal graffiti, breakdancing & ‘the lyricists lounge’).” This summer, with funding from Spaceworks Tacoma, the trio is launching FABITAT, a creative enterprise to connect diverse youth with practicing arts professionals in a multi-purpose instructional lab that will include free access (for enlisted students) to computers and musical equipment. FABITAT staff will provide one-on-one mentoring designed to strengthen the students as artists and inspire them as individuals. Fab-5 has been awarded occupancy of a rent-free studio at 1310 Martin Luther King Way for the project’s 3-to-6 month duration.

A controversial Fab-5 mural incorporating Islamic imagery transformed the back wall of the Rialto Theater into a conversation piece. The work was funded by Tacoma's Urban Grace Church "to bring community partners together and to beautify Market Street,” pastor Tad Monroe told the Tacoma News Tribune.

“We have had students as young as five and as old as 50 show up for [L.I.F.E.] classes,” says Lowery. “Our usual range, though, is 13 to 18 years old.” FABITAT will be the umbrella for L.I.F.E. as well as more in-depth art instruction. “Since 2005, we have expanded our programming, as well as our outreach into the community. Prior to 2005, we were doing breakdancing and DJing events. During events, we would have multiple people coming up to us and asking, ‘Do you all teach this?'” Fab-5 encourages “the cultivation of leadership and positive aspiration in the lives of Tacoma youth through the arts,” according to the website. It has “developed a lot more relationships with the community” through art-related projects, says Lowery. The group envisions the centralized FABITAT location as a place where youth “can convene to work, learn and collaborate in their artistic trade – doing so at a frequency that will allow for ample student growth.” Fab-5 was formed in 2000 as an initiative of the Northwest Leadership Foundation. Last year, it received the City of Tacoma’s prestigious AMOCAT Award for “Outreach by a Community Organization.” FABITAT, 1310 Martin Luther King Way, through Oct. 31, 2011.