Matt Driscoll

You’re going to like this new sign. But who’s behind the guerrilla art at Titlow?

It took 70 feet of LED lights.

It took four 12-volt batteries.

As the sun descended below the horizon Wednesday night, briefly turning the sky ablaze over Titlow beach, it required a rowboat at the last minute to turn it on.

And for 42-year-old electrician-turned-artist John James Nelson, making it took a lot of love for the place he calls home.

Nelson refers to his work as “illumine art.” It’s an apt description. His latest piece — a 30-foot long glowing homage to the iconic 1909 “You’ll Like Tacoma” promotion, updated with the 253 heart — certainly fits the bill.

While the original “You’ll Like Tacoma” sign stood on the shores of Lake Union during the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Nelson’s crack at the classic resides closer to home, at least for the time being.

Over the course of several days, James and 41-year-old CJ Cooper, a photographer friend who spends most of the year traveling the country with a basset hound named Boogie, paddled out to a cluster of old pilings protruding from the cold water not far from the shore. First, they attached a support. Then, they attached the lighted letters and the heart, one by one.

“The bottom line, this piece is for the city. This is for everybody,” Nelson told The News Tribune.

In true Tacoma fashion, Nelson didn’t do this himself, he did it with help. It’s DIY, and then some, with plenty of assistance from the community, including donations of material and money from individuals and local businesses, he says.

The artistic effort is also guerrilla. Nelson says he didn’t exactly seek permission, though he did check with Metro Parks just to be safe. In truth, wasn’t even really sure who owned the pilings. He just went for it, come what may, hoping the art — and the intention behind it — speaks for itself.

How long Nelson’s LED art show runs remains to be seen. Life is complicated sometimes, as was deciphering ownership of the pilings - at least initially. Reached Thursday, Metro Parks Tacoma said the agency doesn’t own the pilings. According to a spokesman for the the State Department of Natural Resources, a review of titles and records indicates the pilings are owned by the City of Tacoma. On Friday, a City of Tacoma spokeswoman was able to confirm that.

Kenny Ocker, a spokesman for DNR, did offer a ringing endorsement of the brightly lit art that now adorns the pilings, saying it makes for “one heck of an addition to the City of Destiny’s shoreline, and it’s 100 percent accurate.”

“You’ll love Tacoma, just like we do,” Ocker said.

For Nelson, it’s been so far, so good, at least as of this writing. He tells The News Tribune he hopes to let the piece hang for 30 days, turning it on each night between 9 p.m. and midnight for all to enjoy. He plans to take it down briefly, around the Fourth of July, before putting it back up.

To alleviate potential concerns, Nelson made accommodations for the birds who roost on the pilings, designing the sign, he says, so it’s “free and clear” of all their activity.

Early Wednesday morning — at around 2 a.m. to be precise — Nelson and Cooper flipped the switch for the first time. The initial reaction has been a bit overwhelming, they said, coming largely via social media.

While he’s used the pilings as placement for his artistic expression in the past, largely without issue — lighting them up at holidays like Christmas, Halloween and Valentines Day each year since 2017 — the reception for this one was different. Pictures of Nelson’s LED artwork — posted online by Cooper, collaborator and 253-Heart owner Steve Naccarato, and Grit City Magazine — started building a buzz, almost immediately.

“Dude, everybody loves this (expletive),” Nelson said. “This is the brightest one I’ve done yet.”

For Cooper, who says he often eats his dinner in the park when he’s not on the road traveling, helping his friend doubled as a chance to say thanks to the city that always welcomes him back.

“Personally, the city has been awfully good to me, and I wanted to give back just a little bit,” Cooper said. “Titlow is kind of like my home park. I thought, this is a great place to do it, and it’s a great sign. It’s just something to give back to the people who come down.”

Naccarato — who granted Nelson permission to use the 253-Heart and helped him design the piece — says it was artists enthusiasm that sold him. The plan was hatched recently, he says, over drinks at the nearby Beach Tavern.

The rest, as they say, is history.

“The fact that he is just so hardcore committed to doing something of-the-wall and fun and unexpected, I was all over it,” Naccarato said, adding that when he saw the sign light up for the first time, he “literally had goosebumps.”

“It’s just so amazing to see it sitting out there above the water,” Naccarato added. “It’s just so Tacoma.”

Wednesday night, shortly after sunset, a growing number of people attracted to the water’s edge by the sign seemed to agree.

“It’s like it belongs here,” said Michelle Meinhart, who had seen photos online earlier in the day but wasn’t sure where the sign was actually located. Along with her husband and children, the family stumbled upon it when they came to Titlow for the sunset.

“I think it will make me want to come here more often,” Meinhart says.

Stephanie McCullough, a life-long Tacoma resident, also wandered into the artwork’s public unveiling by chance.

“I definitely approve. I can’t wait to tell everybody about it,” McCullough said.

“It’s Tacoma,” she added.

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Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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