Ssssshhhhh. Sh. Ssshh. Sssshhhh.
The sky blue of local graffiti artist Johny D’s spray paint quickly starts to come together and form shapes on the side of the building. A monochrome Charlie Chaplin looks on and winks as he mutters something in Russian.
Johny D steps back to admire his work next to the hundreds of tags and layers of paint that coat the ever-evolving building. Another piece of art is dropped into the pool of vibrant graffiti on the Tubs Seattle building.
For seven years, the Tubs building has been a beacon for those in the church of street art. Serving as the most prominent and one of the last free-tagging walls in the city, it’s been called everything from an eyesore to a haven, depending on who you talk to. But on Monday, it finally fulfilled its destiny and was knocked down to make room for a 60-unit apartment complex.
Located on the corner of 50th and Roosevelt, it was impossible to miss, with colorful art covering almost every square inch of the quarter-acre property. Built in 1905, Tubs has been everything from a disco to a grocery store, according to local artist D.K. Pan, who is working on a documentary in memory of the building’s legacy.
“As inhabitants of a shared city, the collective memory of places occupies the area between the personal and public,” said Pan, co-director of the Free Sheep Foundation, a group of artists that produce projects in unconventional spaces and derelict buildings like Tubs. “The city [is constantly evolving, and] the shaping and making of [Tubs] is both reflective and call for engagement.”
According to Pan, when the building was first established, it was a residence area with some retail space on the ground level. In 1923, it was redeveloped as a grocery store and eventually became a sequence of stores thereafter, including the Big Bear Store, then the Lucky Store, and in the early ’60s, the P&C Grocery, while also serving as a car dealership during this time.
During the 1970s, the building was renovated and became The District Tavern, one of the earliest venues for rock music in Seattle. In 1982, the building was acquired by Tubs Seattle and became a spa-room rental facility, where it developed the unseemly nickname “the soak and poke” from its seedy reputation.
In 2007, the hot tub facility was closed down, and the building was left without management. It was obtained by Eric Sun, owner of Suns Properties, a local housing management company. He planned to have it demolished to make room for an apartment complex, but in the meantime, he offered it up as a free wall where artists could go.
“If they were going to graffiti a building, [we thought] it may as well be this one,” said Tuan Truong, an employee at Suns Properties.
Sun, who went to high school with Pan, said that the idea came up in a conversation when Pan asked him what his plans for Tubs were. Sun made a deal with the Free Sheep Foundation, whom he’d worked with once before on the Bridge Motel property — they could use the space as an art space until the wrecking ball came.
The Foundation leapt into action, calling more than 30 initial artists to design a mural on Tubs, inside and out. Although a “curated exhibition” at first, it quickly became a free wall where anyone could come to tag, paint, or express themselves.
Sun’s purchase came just before the recession hit in 2008, and suddenly, there weren’t any viable building options. Construction ground to a halt, but the artists didn’t. Each day brought new, excited artists to the lot, and the wall started to become iconic for Seattle.
Ssh. Ssssh. Ssshhh. Ssh. Sh. Details begin to appear on the body of Johny D’s work, and soon, more lines start to complicate the simple blue outline of his piece.
“I was thrilled when Tubs started to get blasted with paint; to see it morph and change every time I would drive by,” said Johny D, who goes by the tag SORPROsO. “To see what spots on its surfaces took real effort to get to, let alone paint, and would remain untouchable for weeks or longer.”
The building was accessible to anyone except city laws. The Seattle Graffiti Nuisance Ordinance holds property owners accountable for any graffiti on their premises or else owners are subject to fines. Tubs fell in a loophole: The city defines illegal graffiti as markings “without the owner’s permission,” and artists who came to 50th and Roosevelt had Sun’s wholehearted consent.
Initially, Sun made it clear to the city that this was intentional artwork, but he still got multiple calls from city officials complaining and asking him to take the free wall down.
“I had to tell them that everyone I know loves it and considers it a really unique place to do artwork in Seattle,” Sun said. “I guess my personal feeling is that vacant buildings that can’t be occupied should have a purpose.”
In 2009, the city of Seattle spent more than $1.8 million cleaning up graffiti around the city, according to a city audit report. Although city officials have extended many offers for volunteers and paint to Sun, he’s refused them all. It’s about free expression.
“Almost all public space is either controlled by money [through advertising] or painted gray. Tubs allows a co-regulating visual dialogue that involves an entire community of people willing to publicly self express,” said NKO, a painter, performer, and managing director at the Free Sheep Foundation.
The relic has given freedom to those with paint and an inclination. Neighborhood business owners say they’ve seen artists come from all over to shoot videos or just get a chance to paint Tubs, even if it only lasted for a little while.
Ssssssssh. shh. Johny D’s lines start to form more shapes. There’s a clearer outline of a body, feather outlines still gleaming in the rare Seattle-winter sunshine.
“[With graffiti] I appreciated the immediacy and the speed of it. It’s possible to paint or write something in 12 seconds or two minutes that can remain a part of the urban landscape for much longer, even if it’s only temporary,” Johny D said.
Johny looks around Tubs and takes it all in. He’s glad there’s a free space like this. He wishes there was more. He hates to think about a Seattle where graffiti is a scourge. Maybe someday it won’t be.
Sun appreciates what the building means for the community as a free practice space for graffiti art. He personally feels it’s nice to have a space that might draw people away from illegal spots. The local police told him there’s been no increase in graffiti around Tubs since it became a tag wall.
Sun was glad to drive by it on his way to work everyday; he’s going to miss it now that it’s gone.
Although he’s been saying it for years, the time has finally come: With the lending climate getting better, Sun says that he’s finally ready to build at 50th and Roosevelt. He still plans for a six-floor apartment building with commercial retail but says he’s bummed to see Tubs go.
“For someone who’s a developer, we tend to be constantly changing and evolving the city. We destroy a lot of stuff, and it’s nice that something can come out of that,” Sun said.
With Tubs gone, Seattle is left without any free, publicly accessible walls for artists to paint on. Johny D says he won’t be losing gallery space — he’s been a tagger for some time now because he already has “shoddy access to paint spots.” He’ll just be losing his favorite gallery to drive by and admire.
Sssssssshhh. Ssh. Sssh. Johny D steps back and admires his work: An eccentric bird peers out from the wall of Tubs, new to its surroundings but not out of place. The paint gleams in the sunlight no more.
It’s finally finished.
Reach Science Editor Zosha Millman at email@example.com. Twitter: @Zosham