‘Hello. How are you?’ asks Hilltop home in a big way

Tacoma’s newest landmark: “Hello, How are you?”

Tacoma artists Anida Yoeu Ali and Masahiro Sugano have installed large letters in the front yard of their Hilltop Neighborhood home that spell out, "HELLO. HOW ARE YOU?"
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Tacoma artists Anida Yoeu Ali and Masahiro Sugano have installed large letters in the front yard of their Hilltop Neighborhood home that spell out, "HELLO. HOW ARE YOU?"

Hello. How are you?

The greeting is so common it’s banal.

Except when it’s blown up in four-foot-tall letters.

A house on Tacoma’s Hilltop makes the salutation 24 hours a day to all who pass.

The sign, at the corner of South 17th Street and South Grant Avenue, faces the Al Davies Boys and Girls Club, Stanley Elementary School and a church.

The message’s creators, Tacoma artists Anida Yoeu Ali, 44, and Masahiro Sugano, 46, say they have no political agenda.

“It’s a greeting. It’s a welcoming,” Ali said. “It opens up conversations, which is the whole point of our work.”

The pair, both artists-in-residence and instructors at the University of Washington Bothell, moved into the neighborhood in 2016. She is a performance artist and he is a filmmaker. Together, they run Studio-Revolt, a Tacoma-based art media lab.

The couple, transplants from Connecticut with three young daughters, bought their Hilltop house online, sight unseen. It had been abandoned for eight years. They moved into a mother-in-law residence while they renovated the main house.

“This is the first time that Masa and I have had this kind of space,” Ali said.

Sugano grew up in Japan. Ali came to America as a child, a Cambodian refugee, and grew up in Chicago.

They moved to Tacoma just as the 2016 presidential campaign was heating up.

“The racial tension was kind of crazy,” Sugano said. “It was affecting us. (There was) anxiety over what was going to happen.”

Neighbors told them the house had a history with gangs and drugs. Still, the couple worried that they might be contributing to the worst part of gentrification — the displacement of longtime residents.

“There are two ways to make your house safe,” Sugano said. “One is to build up a wall. Another is to take out the wall and invite people in and have meals together.”

They chose the second option.

“We started cooking a lot and inviting people to dine,” he said.

The couple began a neighborhood dialogue beyond politics.

“We started talking to each other,” Sugano said.

Ali and Sugano didn’t stop with their neighbors. They wanted to use their corner lot to bring their message to all of Tacoma.

They looked for a phrase that was a statement and a question. Something that would cut across racial and political lines.

Finally, they chose a greeting they heard a dozen times a day.

Hello. How are you?

“But how do we do it in a really hyper-visual way?” Ali said.

Immediately, the “Hollywood” sign came to mind. Then, the couple found historical photos of the “You’ll like Tacoma” sign built for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle.

“That was when everything started falling in place,” Ali said. The sign would be an homage to the past and a phrase everyone can identify with.

In late 2017, the Tacoma Arts Commission offered them a $2,500 grant for the project.

But the couple got distracted by their academic work and home renovation.

“So, we got in a fight. How are we going to finish this?” Ali recalled. “It became really daunting, the amount of work. We wanted to hand-make all the letters.”

“I freaked out, and I said I’m not doing this,” Sugano said.

“He quit the project,” Ali said. “Three times.”

“She got mad. I got mad.”

Hello. How are you?

Not well, apparently.

That’s when a crew of artists and builders stepped in.

Artist Stella Kemper figured out how to fabricate the letters. They chose three-quarters-inch plywood, cut by a computerized router at Tacoma’s FabLab.

“You can get a lot of L’s in one sheet (of plywood),” Kemper said.

Contractor Joshua Sembly and carpenter Danny Connelly cut and assembled the letters. Some were more difficult than others.

“The A, the W, those angles are very acute,” Sembly said.

Contractors Arthur Clark and Vince Rehm pitched in as well.

“I was all for it,” said Rehm, who sets tile for a living. “I love working with artists. They are open to what you have to say and your creativity.”

The sign not only had to make a 90-degree turn — it’s on a corner lot — but also be as neatly placed as type on a page.

The question mark, with its swan neck curve, took a few days longer to install, much to the relief of a busload of grammar-policing middle schoolers.

“You heard all the kids on the bus going, ‘There’s the question mark’,” Rehm said.

The sign had its unveiling on Nov. 11. Community members helped turned the last few bolts.

The installation is not meant to be permanent. Sugano and Ali hope that a community institution, like a church, will be interested in installing it.

“As a Muslim, I would like to see this go to a mosque,” Ali said. “Right now, mosques and synagogues are really under fire.”

In its two weeks of existence, the sign has garnered a lot of looks and questions.

“You are supposed to inquire what this is about,” Ali said. “That is at the core of what contemporary art is.”

Recently, she saw a passing car stop, back up and park. Three men got out and shot selfies with the sign.

“It really fills my heart,” Ali said. “That continually happens.”

Hello. How are you?

Craig Sailor has worked for The News Tribune for 20 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He previously worked at The Olympian and at other newspapers in Nevada and California.