Art saved Tacoma; it can save others, too

Tom Llewellyn is one of six reader columnist for The News Tribune in 2017. Photo courtesy of Tom Llewellyn
Tom Llewellyn is one of six reader columnist for The News Tribune in 2017. Photo courtesy of Tom Llewellyn

Artists saved Tacoma. Convince me I’m wrong. Big business has all but left town. Major new employers have yet to show. McMenamins has so far proved to be nothing but a tease.

In spite of all that, Tacoma is the cornerstone city of one of the fastest-growing counties in the U.S. And our cheap housing has been replaced with bidding wars. Why? Because of artists.

Art is what makes Tacoma known for more than just paper mills or smokestacks. We have world-class art museums; our street fairs and festivals are crowded with local artists and artisans selling T-shirts and posters. Tacoma’s School of the Arts has been an incubator for Rhode Island School of Design grads and nationally-touring musicians.

When the nationwide art store chain, Artist and Craftsman Supply, opened a Tacoma branch this year, it had the biggest opening week in the company’s history.

The result of being saved by all this art is not all good. Housing, once cheap, is expensive. Gentrification is a real threat to long-term residents. Our streets are crowded and traffic stinks.

But think back 20 years, if you’ve been here that long. Back then, we had citywide low self-esteem. In 1997, I recall trying to buy some Tacoma-themed gifts for a friend moving out of town. Every snow globe, T-shirt and pencil I could find had Seattle printed on it, as if we were a suburb of the Great City To The North, and lucky to be one.

Now there are dozens — maybe hundreds — of Tacoma-themed T-shirts seen on our streets every day. From the 253 heart to T-Town to You’ll Like Tacoma. They’re everywhere. And people wear them. Because those people are proud to live here. We have civic pride. We’ve been saved.

I take a small amount of credit for this. I co-founded Beautiful Angle, a letterpress street art project, with my dear friend Lance Kagey. Fourteen years ago, Lance and I started printing posters and hanging them on Tacoma’s streets. We used our art to love our city.

We were two among many. Glassblowers, silkscreen printers, ceramic artists, painters, gallery owners, other letterpress printers, countless organizers and arts commissioners all worked (and loved) to make this fading industrial town a thriving city of arts.

And sure, you can make a list of all our problems, real and imagined: a lack of employers, too many potholes, too much crime, no Ethiopian restaurants. But the one thing — the single most important thing — has been accomplished: We feel good about ourselves. We’re proud to be Tacomans.

Now then, as Stan Lee and Voltaire say, with great power comes great responsibility. If Tacoma artists have the power to save cities, shouldn’t we save another one?

I just spent a week in Guatemala City — a beautiful, crime-filled stew of hand-woven fabrics, curse-worthy traffic, and Pollo Campero restaurants. Guatemala City has a vitality that Tacoma can’t compete with. If cities were measured with an electrocardiogram, Tacoma would show a resting heart rate, while Guatemala City’s heart pounds like they’re sprinting up the side of Volcán de Fuego.

But Guatemala City also has a self-esteem problem. It sits in the cultural shadows of the much larger Mexico City to the north and the more touristy regions of Costa Rica and Panama to the south.

It reminds me so much of Tacoma 20 years ago, when our identity could be summed up as, “It’s not as bad as it looks.” When all the local T-shirts said Seattle.

If Tacoma artists have created such a positive impact on Tacoma, could we also create a positive impact on Guatemala City? Could we work with the amazing artists already there, sit at their feet and learn from them, and with all humility, tell our simple-but-true story of what’s worked for us here in Tacoma?

Could we tell them, for example, how silk-screened T-shirts and letterpress posters have changed the way a city thinks about itself?

Who’s with me? All we need are passports, a little ink and a little love for cities.

Tom Llewellyn of Tacoma is a content marketing director and children’s novelist. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Reach him at tom@tommyllew.com