Hello from the History Department —
By now you may have seen the “before” images of the Tacoma Elks building – decaying, waterlogged and covered in graffiti. Through one of our Tacoma artists, Jeremy Gregory, whose work is now found throughout the hotel, we were able to connect with a few of the graffiti writers to hear their stories.
Korpse. Kona. SOHS. Eliot. 4Eyes. Sezur. These were just a handful of the big, colorful names and tags found in and around Tacoma and throughout the decaying Elks building when McMenamins purchased the property in the late 2000s.
The once-glorious Elks’ BPOE lodge had been vacant, moldering and rotting in the damp waterfront air for decades. Naturally, kids wanted in – to explore, to write, to tag, to skateboard across the wide expanse of ballroom floor, to swing and jump from a long, tattered rope that someone had tied to a rafter. Maybe drink a beer or two, smoke a joint. But that wasn’t the point, not for these guys – they were artists.
“Graffiti was everything at one point. Such a part of my identity. So much of it involves code and ethics, and being original,” one of those teenage Elks artists, now in his 30s, remembers. Another recalls, “It was an outlet for us. We were so bored. We’d just walk and walk and walk.” Graffiti gave them a purpose, a destination and a sense of belonging to an underground community. And the Elks building was the perfect canvas – it had immense walls, provided cover from the rain and was owned throughout the 1990s and early 2000s by a largely absentee party. It made an ideal “gallery” for their illicit artwork.
Just imagine the scene: There was a loosely boarded-up window below the Spanish Steps that provided entry. There was another easily jimmied door that led into a kitchen, a space the guys remember as being “super sketchy” in the dark. As rainwater trickled slowly in through the ceiling and down the stairwells, kids with their backpacks full of spray paint and sketchbooks would map out sections of wall for their pieces and get to work. They’d have already considered the font style, color palette, which surface they’d work on, what words or names they’d write – not to mention the need for silence and speed. Often, they’d work for hours in the cold, dark building with just a flashlight or two so they wouldn’t get busted by cops or jumped by other crews. They weren’t scared – it was thrilling and fun. And they were there to do art. It served a greater creative purpose.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong. We were vandals,” says another of the artists, speaking practically of those fluid days when he and his crew roamed the streets of Tacoma, looking for good spots to leave their marks – their beautifully stylized, highly practiced marks. “You learned how to ‘properly’ vandalize and trespass – how to be smart about it.”
There is an etiquette involved. Be respectful. Don’t tag trees or small businesses. Never etch a window. Never cover someone’s work who died. If you do cover another artist’s piece, “elevate it” – make it even better than when you found it.
Another of the artists, in conversation today, expounds on the history of graffiti in America – from its beginnings in Philadelphia in the late 1960s to its fusion with East Coast hip hop culture in the ’80s to its New York and LA influences. He cites books that were important, how his crew would road-trip down to Powell’s Books in Portland to find the references they wanted. This wasn’t just a bunch of kids high on adrenaline and paint fumes. This was their thing. They were committed to it.
Graffiti is competitive. “You want to be better than the rest. You want notoriety. It’s called, ‘getting fame.’” Another term is “getting up,” getting your tag and your pieces out as much as possible so that you are known within the graffiti culture. The need to “get up” led a crew to one night “bomb” the top ledge of the Elks exterior with their tags, visible to all for blocks around. That was a victory, no doubt about it.
So what happened to the crews of kids? Their stories are varied. For example, one became a professional muralist who is commissioned to paint block-long public artworks. Another currently works as a graphic designer for a well-known Portland coffee roaster. And still another was hired by McMenamins as an artist, whose beautiful work is now found throughout this building. But not all became what society deems successful – one of the most prolific Elks writers from the ’90s spiraled downward with his demons and still rails tragically and futilely against “the establishment.”
Here at the Elks, we brought a few of those graffiti writers back to the proverbial scene of the crime, to rearticulate their artwork from that era. Graffiti was something meaningful to those kids – even if it meant breaking and entering, sprints through dark stairwells and alleys to evade capture, stints in juvenile detention, convicted felony charges, a near-fatal fall off a building and more. Still, as one artist says, “I’ll always do it.” That history deserves not to be dismissed, but celebrated as colorful testament to the Elks Temple’s story.