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City’s murals provide a visual feast for passersby

Chelsea O’Sullivan’s mural adorns a wall at the Tacoma Buddhist Temple, 1717 S. Fawcett Ave.
Chelsea O’Sullivan’s mural adorns a wall at the Tacoma Buddhist Temple, 1717 S. Fawcett Ave. City of Tacoma Murals Project

I first saw the massive octopus on Facebook. My cousin often posts intriguing things from the Tacoma area about local concerns like the Kalakala and other happier stories like First Night.

The painted octopus the color of fall leaves made me pause as I scrolled through my feed. Over the next few days I continued to watch online as the mural progressed on a two-story-building wall in the city.

It began as a sketch with gorgeous cherry blossoms above and the cephalopod below. Soon the artwork bloomed into the full scene with lotus flower lanterns in raised tentacles and a young woman lighting them from above.

Wondering where I could see this mural and how such a marvelous thing came into existence, I did my research. From Google, I discovered that Tacoma has an entire project of paintings springing up around the city in an art renaissance I never could have dreamed of when I first came to the City of Destiny.

I moved to this area in the 1970s while the Asarco smelter was still in operation. The Commencement Bay Nearshore-Tideflats Superfund site did not yet exist. The air stank from the sulfur rising above pulp mills when my family drove into Tacoma’s North End to visit my grandparents near the University of Puget Sound. I remember plugging my nose while hearing my dad mention the “Tacoma Aroma.”

Now, I work at the epicenter of the city on 11th and Yakima near the courthouse and jail. I no longer plug my nose since the mills have improved their technologies.

As it happened, I was teaching English off campus at an apartment complex two blocks away from the Tacoma Buddhist Temple where I found the mural offline at 1717 S. Fawcett Ave.

I worked with my students right next to that pink and vermillion beauty created by artist Chelsea O’Sullivan. Because it faced down the hill, and I had no reason to notice the temple or go behind it, I would never have seen the octopus if I hadn’t been alerted to it on social media.

Sometimes beauty is like that. It sneaks up on me and starts happening in places where I would not think to look.

I know the murals, like the environmental improvements, have not come by accident. Artists, coordinators and benefactors in the Tacoma Murals Project got together and worked long hours to execute the 27 now existing works of art like the one I discovered. After finding the lotus flowers, I looked around when I walked on my lunch breaks. I’ve now seen dozens of painted features and get a thrill knowing that more are coming each year.

My eyes will stay open to discover more of what’s around me in this Superfund Site City of Destiny. Even with the aroma, it was never boring. It's becoming ever more interesting with the move to replace crumbling smokestacks with lotus blossoms.

Karrie Zylstra Myton of Puyallup teaches at Bates Technical College and writes children's fiction. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Email her at karriezylstra@gmail.com.

Locate the murals

View photos (with street addresses) from the Tacoma Murals Project at tinyurl.com/qjau82z.

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