The Irish called them storytellers, men who wandered the land and shared its history some true, some not so true.
Axel Moeller has never stayed in one place too long, seems to have been everywhere and done about everything. While he paints, the 86-year-old storyteller will be happy to talk to you.
I talk too much, but I know it, he said with a laugh. But I love talking to people.
The loves of Moellers life now are many. Theres his family, with nine children scattered around the country. Theres his music, and he has enough instruments in his Tacoma home to start a band.
And there are his murals, which appear up and down Sixth Avenue, on store fronts, side-yard cement walls, alleyways and inside the occasional tavern.
Ah, but not to worry.
I quit drinking 30 years ago, and I dont miss it, Moeller said. Friends told me I was out on my feet, and I couldnt believe what they said Id do. That was it. I quit.
Over the decades, hell tell you, he was a professional musician, an entertainer, worked in a machine shop, was a commercial illustrator, painted billboards in Wisconsin and murals in Montana.
And not just Montana.
I painted my first mural in Santa Maria, California. It was a big rock, a big tree, and was inspired by Paul Detlefsen, a great artist, Moeller said. I painted it inside a little bar where I was playing music by night.
He reckons to have left murals behind him in Iowa, Wisconsin, Utah, Montana, Idaho and California. For the last decade or so, hes lived in Tacoma and walked Sixth Avenue daily.
Weve been here nine years and seen Axel produce some beautiful artwork without charging a cent, covering up graffiti, said Lisa ODay, co-owner of the Aloha Oasis shop on Sixth. Hes done it without acknowledgement.
Hell paint a car, a garage door, anything. Axel has a heart of gold. Hes quite a character.
That he is. The stories sometimes come more quickly than the paintings.
As a musician, I knew Jimmy Dean, Buck Owens, Ferlin Husky and lots of folks from the Grand Ol Opry, he said. What did I play? Everything. I still have a piano, two fiddles, a trumpet, a saxophone, a clarinet and a couple guitars. I play all the time at home. I love music.
His income is spotty.
My social insecurity thats what I call it is about $7,000 a year, he said. When I paint, I dont ask for payment. Some people give me a little. Some people bring me coffee while Im out here. I just cant stand seeing the graffiti.
Its like a plague of locusts. Merchants are having a tough enough time staying in business, and graffiti reduces their real estate value.
Graffiti taggers seem to avoid spraying their art over Moellers.
Ive been fortunate that the graffiti artists have left my work alone. Its another style, but they seem to respect it, he said.
The city respects his work, too.
What we define as graffiti is unauthorized painting, so if hes getting permission from those who own the businesses, hes avoided that problem, said Lisa Wojtanowicz, Tacomas manager of community services.
I think its great. We work to get artists to do murals over graffiti, she added. What hes doing is wonderful.
An all-purpose artist, Moeller does more than paint.
I tune pianos, too. For children and churches, I do it for nothing, he said. and sometimes Ill play a little concert for them.
He doesnt often need a question to start a story, but when he gets them, the answers dont always reproduce well. Hes missing the tip of his left thumb, for instance. What happened?
I lost it in 1936, he said.
The explanation that followed involved being in a tree, being struck by a pipe, holding his thumb together while a friend rode him to the hospital on a bicycle. Its quite a story, and some of it may be true.
If you ask, Moeller will give you a lesson in mural painting.
You get a can of paint and close your eyes. You make a couple of strokes and open your eyes, and decide This could be this, this could be that and go from there, he said. I start with the sky and just keep moving. I use every lazy trick in the book, I break rules.
At 86, he has no intention of stopping his painting.
Ive got to work Im no longer handsome, he said, and winked.
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638