Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell walked into an alley off McKinley Street on Saturday and eyed two men spray painting a wall.
But Ramsdell didn’t reach for his cuffs.
Instead, he posed for photos in front of two angel wings the men had painted. He was one of a steady stream of visitors and police officers watching the men work Saturday during the McKinley Hill Street Fair.
The artists, Anthony Duenas and Shaun Rankin (street names Cable and Modem), were spending the day painting a Pokemon-themed mural.
The artists were painting the building at the invitation of its owner, Tacoma Christian Center, and the street fair’s organizers.
While some consider graffiti artists to be vandals, Duenas and Rankin have recently been the victims of a paint-wielding vandal.
The mural they painted at the same spot during last year’s street fair was painted over in March by a man who seems to be on a crusade to rid the city of public art.
“We were here for seven hours, and this kid came out and covered over everything,” Rankin said Saturday. “Why would anyone do that? We didn’t come out and tag anything. We didn’t destroy anything.”
Duenas, who is a Puyallup tribal member, repainted the wall with coastal native art designs following the vandalism. But that too was soon painted over by the vandal.
After the incidents, the men painted their names and phone numbers, hoping the vandal would call them to discuss it. Instead, the vandal returned and painted over that.
After the incident in March, patrons from next-door bar, Fergie’s On the Ave, confronted the man.
And when street fair organizer Tara Scheidt heard about it, she drove to the alley that day in March.
“We rushed up and the guy is in a confrontation with folks from the bar,” Scheidt said. “They’re just trying to get him to stop. He was yelling religious things.”
After later identifying him, Tacoma police officer Shelbie Boyd reached the alleged vandal by phone.
“He told me (the mural) was offensive,” Boyd said. “He thought he was doing a good deed.”
Ramsdell acknowledged that art is subjective and people have differing opinions. But he noted how many people were wandering into the alley Saturday to engage with the art and artists even before they were finished.
The community’s acceptance of public art is the ultimate test for it, Ramsdell said.
“In a lot of ways it gives a community part of its character,” he said.
Police are still investigating, Boyd said. After painting over the alley mural and another down the street, the vandal inscribed the walls with religious messages.
The vandal is a suspect in other public art vandalism, including the city’s art-covered traffic boxes.
Rankin and Duenas were undeterred by the vandalism, even though they spend about $200 of their own money each time they paint a mural.
“I had such a good time last year,” Rankin said. “Today, everybody is so positive about this, it makes me want to come even more. I love painting and I love talking to people while I paint.”
The artists and organizers are hoping the vandal’s reign of censorship by paint is over.
“All the neighbors are vigilant,” Scheidt said. “But we’re nervous it’s going to happen again unless there’s some sort of intervention with the guy.”