Bellingham is a city full of murals, from brightly colored graffiti art to expertly-painted classic pieces.
The murals were commissioned for a variety of reasons: to brighten up a space, combat graffiti in frequently vandalized spots, or showcase historical features that have been lost to time and redevelopment. While the art may have lost their novelty for locals who have frequently passed them, the stories behind the murals are ones of communities coming together.
One mural, many helping hands
Sara Snedeker is convinced she can make anyone an artist.
Snedeker, who is based in Seattle, describes herself as a “local social practice artist,” meaning she works to engage communities through her art.
“That’s social practice. You’re not just going in and doing something in a community, you’re engaging the community and making them a part of it,” Snedeker said.
When Rose Lathrop from Sustainable Connections reached out to her about painting a mural at Shuksan Meadows Park in Birchwood, Snedeker decided to involve students from nearby Birchwood Elementary and Shuksan Middle schools. Students were able to vote for their favorite design and were invited to help paint the bright, colorful and geometric mural.
Community members and a dozen students helped Snedeker paint the “Shuksan Color Mandala” horizontal mural in Birchwood in April. The project was sponsored by the City of Bellingham, Sustainable Connections and Whatcom Community Foundation.
Fighting graffiti – with graffiti art
Downtown businesses and the city have been getting creative in their efforts to discourage unwanted graffiti.
While the Bellingham Police Department said reports of vandalism haven’t increased recently, businesses have decided to commission art on spaces that have been common spots for vandalism.
Graffiti artists like Western Washington University environmental studies graduate Shawn Cass, 37, have been in high demand. Cass’ murals can be found across town and he is best known for Hohl Feed & Seed Company’s Bird Alley, the mural on the side of Alamo Apartments, and the community mural on Railroad Avenue for the city.
Cass said while he knows a lot of businesses reach out to him to discourage graffiti, he’s more interested in creating art, rather than discouraging taggers. But the tactic still works. He said in graffiti art culture, if an artist paints on a wall that already has art, it’s expected they will paint something more appealing or better than what was on a wall before.
“We encourage street artists to ‘step their game up’ and take pride in their art by making it visually pleasing and appreciated rather than giving graffiti a bad name,” Cass said.
Kelcie Faber, manager at Hohl Feed & Seed Company, said the building’s back wall in the alley had been getting unwanted graffiti at least once a week before Cass started painting there – now known as Bird Alley because of his work. The alley is now commonly frequented by visitors taking photos.
“It has made a huge difference. People who tag seem to have a lot of respect for artists using that space. No one has tagged over anything he’s done,” Faber said. “I’m not finding as many needles and beer cans as I used to back there. It’s a destination now.”
Businesses aren’t the only ones using creative solutions to address graffiti. In July, the city commissioned Cass to paint a mural on a wall on Railroad Avenue near the Interurban Trail.
The wall was getting vandalized nearly every week, said Shannon Taysi, program specialist in the City of Bellingham’s planning and community development department. Public Works employees were finding they had to paint over graffiti there once or twice a month and reached out to Taysi to help figure out a creative solution.
“The general cost for crew, truck, equipment and supplies is around $200 to $250 each time we’d respond,” Public Works Streets Supervisor Dan Larsen said in an email. “We haven’t had to respond to any graffiti since the mural was painted… I do think it is a total respect thing.”
The city and Morse Square Condominiums worked together to fund the project, and a stakeholders meeting gave residents of surrounding apartments a chance to give their input. The city plans to evaluate how effective the mural has been at preventing graffiti after a year.
Leaving their mark
One of Buelow’s first murals, which she painted in 2014, is Mtn Series Original, located on the side of Brian Billings Racing Products by The Hub Community Bike Shop on North State Street. Buelow graduated with a degree in geography, but found her artistic passion through her involvement in the art community centered around The Hub. For her, the piece was a way to visually express the connection she felt to Bellingham’s natural setting.
Buelow said she signed her piece as Zukunft Artist (Zukunft means future in German) because she likes seeing “how language translates and what gets lost in translation along the way.” She liked the word because it appealed to her hope to “one day” work as an artist.
Buelow recently moved to Denver after working in San Francisco. She has pieces in California, Australia and Portland. She said she hopes to come back to Bellingham to paint another mural.
Wolf, who graduated in 2008 with a degree in industrial design, has worked on Aslan Brewing’s exterior. He also has pieces at The Hub along the Interurban Trail. He lives in Seattle, but has painted pieces around the U.S. and the world – in Italy, Sweden, California and Nevada. Wolf will be painting a mural next month at the Reno Mural Festival in Nevada.
Kyle Morris, The Hub’s director, reached out to Wolf with a vision for art that was bike-related.
“He wanted something timeless, something classic, something that would last a while,” Wolf said. “Public artwork is in front of people every day. It’s for them and it should speak to them.”
Preserving history through art
Retired artist Lanny Little’s approach to art is a bit more traditional. Little, who started painting murals in Whatcom County in 1999, sometimes employed interns from local high schools, but did most of the planning and painting himself.
“I just kind of said, ‘I’m an artist and I’m going to do it my way,’” he said.
Little sees his art as a public service and said pieces were always done with the community in mind. He has murals throughout Bellingham depicting historical scenes and places, such as his Old Town mural on West Holly and Bay streets and the mural in the Fairhaven Village Green, which he said is his favorite.
“I think it makes people more aware of their history. I deal mostly with historical aspects. Most people don’t know such a grand hotel was in this little burg,” Little said, pointing to the historical Fairhaven Hotel featured in his Village Green mural. The hotel, which was located on the corner of 12th Street and Harris Ave., was constructed in 1889-1890 and torn down in 1956.
Little’s murals have been funded by private donors and the city.
Some of his pieces have disappeared because of reconstruction or because of wear and tear. But that doesn’t bother Little. For now, he is happy to have had the chance to capture pieces of Bellingham’s history, even if they too fade away with time.
“You don’t paint a public mural thinking it’s going to be there forever,” he said.