The Parkland Mural and Tacoma’s Painted Rock


There is a unique part of Tacoma’s history that is often overlooked despite its ideal location and vibrant colors. When one drives southbound on I-5, a very peculiar rock can be spotted towards the right side of the freeway. This large, colorfully painted boulder, which was originally placed in honor of an “aficionado of highway construction” in 1960 (Barrett), has become a public canvas for residents of Tacoma. Teenagers from surrounding high schools and even adults have contributed to painting the boulder. The boulder is regularly given a new coat of paint, so its appearance can change on a week by week basis. The location is open, relatively accessible, and clearly visible to thousands of drivers every day, which makes Tacoma’s painted rock a prime destination for those wanting to make a statement or argument to the public. The unique characteristics of Tacoma’s painted rock are especially highlighted when compared to the Parkland Mural located on Garfield Street. Instead of focusing on how the messages themselves differ, I am going to focus on how the approach of the painted rock’s message differs from the approach of the Parkland Mural’s message.

The recently finished Parkland Community Mural was initiated to “unite local artists, students, community organizations, businesses, and community members to creatively and collectively tell Parkland’s story” (“Read All About It!”). The mural, which resides on the side of the Parkland Post Office, was inspired by a PLU student and completed with the help of the community of Parkland. The goal of the mural is to project a narrative of what Parkland is truly like that describes the history of the place, what the present is like, and also a glimmer of what is desired and hoped for in the future. The mural, spelling out “PARKLAND”, shows an intrinsic part of Parkland within each letter. In the context of the mural, the letters stand for: People, Agriculture, Recreation, Kids, Landscape, Academics, Native peoples, and Diversity (“Read All About It!”). However, the letters aren’t the only pieces of the whole mural. At the tail end of the mural, a rose is depicted growing out from the concrete. The official description of the rose is that it “symbolizes the growth and beauty of Parkland, even if community is transitory, (…)” (“Read All About It!”). This rose gives the mural a vision of the future as well as telling the story of where Parkland came from and what the town currently looks like.

Before we jump straight into comparisons, it is beneficial to understand what it means for these pieces to be part of a place. This will help in drawing stronger comparisons. In Kim Dovey, Simon Wollan, and Ian Woodcock’s Placing Graffiti: Creating and Contesting Character in Inner-city Melbourne, graffiti looked at as an “urban spatial practice” and is explored in relation to space. The authors don’t formally define “urban spatial practice”. Instead, they frame the concept with the following questions: “Why is graffiti where it is and what is its role in the construction and experience of place? How does graffiti add character to built form, and where?” (Dovey, Wollan, and Woodcock, 21). The authors used inner-city Melbourne and its distribution of graffiti as an example for exploring why graffiti is where it is and what sort of emotions or feelings they provoke. Through analysis of prominent pieces in the area to making a heat map of graffiti, this work shows just how much the city influences the content and placement of graffiti. Arcades, restaurants, and large corner-side pieces are all distinctly “graffiti”, but they exhibit different emotions and ideas that are intrinsic to that place. In addition, visibility to the street plays a huge role in placement. Alleyways are littered with graffiti due to seclusion, but large pieces also tend to occupy large, blank walls that are tangible directly from the sidewalks. (Dovey, Wollan, and Woodcock, 25-26). Graffiti is viewed as a living part of the city, and not just a piece of art affixed to a random and open canvas. Therefore, where graffiti is and what it tries to reflect is very much a part of the place it occupies because it is produced by those who occupy the space themselves. If the definition of graffiti is extended to more broadly encompass public art in general, these ideas of placement and content can be applied to the painted rock and the Parkland Mural. This connection is important, because the placement of both pieces not only affects the visibility of the piece, but also who the intended audience is and what is trying to be conveyed to that audience.

The factors behind graffiti creation are explored with the help of census data and city data from San Francisco. Factors such as income levels, prevalence of young males, proximity to commercial zones, and many more are used to map out which variables affect graffiti creation. By generating their own statistical model, they were able to accurately estimate the density of graffiti when compared to the actual data. What they found is that the density of graffiti is the most common in low-income, commercially zoned areas where young males live. Another interesting note is that “graffiti reports … have a strong inverse relationship with distance to arterials, indicating that graffiti is more likely to occur in areas where it will be seen” (Megler, Banis, and Chang, 72). Arterials and other busy roadways attract graffiti simply because of the visibility. This point in particular is where I want to direct attention to when differentiating the painted rock and the Parkland Mural.

The placements of Tacoma’s painted rock and the Parkland Mural differ greatly, and this alone sets an implicit purpose for each piece. The painted rock is in a more prominent spot than the Parkland Mural is because of its wide open location that people literally have to drive around to take the off ramp. The Parkland Mural is relatively separated from those who just make their way through Pacific Avenue. In order to see the Parkland Mural, one has to get off a main road and actually “go into” Parkland. This is the aforementioned “distance to arterials” (or other major roadways) that is used as a factor in the graffiti spatial analysis of San Francisco. The painted rock is closer to a major roadway than the Parkland Mural is, so how does this distance differentiate each piece?

The visibility of each piece is related to the audience that it is . The painted rock is very public, because not only does it speak to those who live in the general area, but it also speaks to those who might just be travelling through. The messages that the rock holds are put there with the intent that anyone can see it. Even though the rock is part of Tacoma, its messages are speaking to everyone, regardless if the rock’s message reflects high school pride, national pride, or something else altogether. On the other hand, the Parkland Mural’s separated location means that the message that it bears is intended for those who are part of the community. The mural’s intent is not to exclude outsiders from the conversation, but to provide a deep and meaningful narrative to the participants of the community. To those who live outside of the Parkland area, it might seem like a simple decoration using the name of the town. However, for someone who actually lives in Parkland, it speaks to their community and their role in it. The meaning behind every letter in the mural is there to tell the story of Parkland to the people of Parkland. It is an effort to bring the community together by reflecting on the past, experiencing the present, and yearning for the future.

The place of the piece is one thing, but there is also an aspect of time. The place of a message can affect the interpretation of it, but time can also affect the meaning and interpretation of each piece. In the description of the painted rock, I mentioned that the rock’s appearance changes on a week by week basis. What about the Parkland Mural? What is the mural’s relation to time in comparison with the painted rock? It is hard to draw too many conclusions between the two pieces at this point in time, because the painted rock has been around for 55 years while the Parkland Mural has only recently been finished. This doesn’t rule out educational speculation, however. Aside from placement, the biggest difference between the rock and the mural is that the painted rock is constantly evolving and has been for over half of a century. Meanwhile, the Parkland Mural is essentially frozen in time, and it hasn’t even celebrated a full year of existence. The big question is whether the Mural will gain more meaning as time goes on, or lose relevance. The painted rock can respond to the present because its message, metaphorically, is not set in stone. The Parkland Mural, on the other hand, isn’t open to be painted over with a new message; it is there to stay for an extended period of time. Time will only tell whether the relevance of the Parkland Mural’s message stays current relative to Tacoma’s painted rock, because time breeds new stories that are itching to be told, and there is no way for us to predict what events may happen next.

by Adam Grieger

Works Cited

Barret, Eldon. “Tacoma Boulder Has Many Faces.” Beaver County Times 6 Nov. 1968, Home ed., B13 sec.: 15. Print.

Dovey, Kim, Simon Wollan, and Ian Woodcock. “Placing Graffiti: Creating And Contesting Character in Inner-City Melbourne.” Journal Of Urban Design 17.1 (2012): 21-41. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.

Megler, Veronika, David Banis, and Heejun Chang. “Spatial Analysis of Graffiti in San Francisco.” Applied Geography 54 (2014): 63-73. Health & Life Sciences ScienceDirect College Edition. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

“Read All About It!” Web log post. Parkland Mural: Community Art in Parkland, WA.. 6 Jan. 2015. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.