Bird by bird, Bellingham artist turned an alley into a beloved icon. Then came the fire

Artist behind ‘Bird Alley’ talks about his mural and the fire at Hohl Feed & Seed

Shawn Cass, who painted the colorful "Bird Alley" mural behind Hohl Feed & Seed in Bellingham, Washington, talks about his work and the fire that destroyed the business Monday, Feb. 18, 2019.
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Shawn Cass, who painted the colorful "Bird Alley" mural behind Hohl Feed & Seed in Bellingham, Washington, talks about his work and the fire that destroyed the business Monday, Feb. 18, 2019.

Shawn Cass created a mural behind Hohl Feed & Seed over three years, beautifying a part of Bellingham that came to be known affectionately as “Bird Alley” for its bright, winged art.

It took flames just hours to destroy the building, which was built in 1902, and, by extension, the 38-year-old Bellingham artist’s work.

A fire tore through the pet supply store on the 1300 block of Railroad Avenue early Monday morning and gutted the downtown landmark. The fire is believed to have been started by “an intentional or careless act,” Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Newold said Wednesday in a news release.

Fire crews rescued more than 75 animals as the building burned, including birds.

The mural remains on the brick wall in the back of the building, but the store is a burnt shell.

Cass at first thought Bird Alley might have survived because the birds — more than 100 of them as of fall 2018 — were created on brick.

When he saw the damage, he realized the building likely would have to be torn down, and his creation with it.

“Maybe it can come back as Bird Alley 2.0,” Cass told The Bellingham Herald Tuesday as he stood in the alley behind Hohl Feed & Seed and looked at the mural.

Some of the “Bird Alley” mural remains on the back of Hohl Feed & Seed after a two-alarm fire on Monday that destroyed the second floor and the granary tower in Bellingham. Shawn Cass, the artist behind the mural, started the process in 2016. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

“If given the opportunity, I would love to recreate Bird Alley,” he said in a later email interview. “I never knew it would gain as much popularity as it has.”

Cass, who goes by Ruckas as an artist, also shared his concern for the business.

“This breaks my heart for the family of the business,” he said. “There is a lot of history here, and it will be hard to rebuild. I really liked that family and the business.”

Cass said he has been painting murals since 2005.

One of his other popular murals is on McKay’s Taphouse off Samish Way, he said.

As for Bird Alley, he started creating the mural three summers ago. He first asked the owners if it was OK for him to paint it. They said yes but told him they couldn’t afford to pay him.

As the mural became more popular, some people started giving him tips, he said, and a GoFundMe account for him raised $600.

The “Bird Alley” mural on the back of Hohl Feed & Seed likely will have to be torn down after the Monday fire destroyed the building. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

As for why he chose to put birds in the alley, he said he had painted bird portraits before, grew up having parakeets and an African grey parrot and he enjoyed birds, including the ones he would go to Hohl to look at occasionally.

The bird art was spray-painted, save one or two birds. Cass also invited other muralists to add their bird art to the alley.

Finches, parrots, chickens, pigeons, seagulls, ducks, geese, pink flamingos, cockatoos, hummingbirds, crows or ravens, a blue bird, a king fisher, a blue heron, a peregrine falcon, a penguin and some unique made-up birds graced the alley, Cass said.

The more birds he added to the mural, the more popular it became. People regularly took photos of it and in front of it. A child suggested that he put a heart over one of the images of two parakeets because they looked like they were in love, he said.

The love birds have become a popular spot for photos, particularly for engaged couples, he said.

He was still working on the mural when the fire happened.

“I was running out of room on the ground level, but I wanted to work on the backgrounds between the birds to make the mural look completed,” Cass said. “I also had plans to have a scissor lift or genie lift donated so I could add more birds at the very highest locations of the building. Specifically, I wanted to paint a huge bald eagle at the top of the building with Mount Baker in the background.”

What were his favorite parts of the wall?

It’s the section that could be seen from Railroad Avenue because it has his artist name, Ruckas, in graffiti letters.

“And I love the part that says, ‘Welcome 2 Bird Alley.’ My favorite birds were the peacock, the owls and the penguin with the egg underneath the word “BRRRD.”

Why did other people love Bird Alley?

Mason Luvera, communications director for the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, had some ideas about that and said that for him, personally, Bird Alley was one of his favorite parts of downtown.

“Bird Alley became an icon downtown because it transformed a walk through a bleak alleyway into a vibrant experience. It was a great example of downtown’s charm and really represented our community’s capacity for art, especially in an unexpected place,” Luvera told The Bellingham Herald in an email interview.

“Shawn’s mural transformed the alleyway into a destination, both because it was a great piece of creativity but also because of the excitement people felt when they stumbled upon it,” he said.

Luvera made it a point to take visitors there.

“Whenever I would take friends or colleagues around downtown, I’d always make sure we took a stroll through Bird Alley. Sure, there are plenty of urban murals out there, but I can’t tell you how many people I’ve shown around downtown that fell in love with Bird Alley,” Luvera said.

“There was just something about it that felt quintessentially Bellingham. I loved that we had such a great example in town of how urban art can transform a blighted space into something vibrant,” he said.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.
Dave Gallagher has covered the Whatcom County business community since 1998. Retail, real estate, jobs and port redevelopment are among the topics he covers.