“Mom, what are they doing?” asked 4-year-old Sawyer as he walked by the artists leaving their mark on the side of Boots Bakery.
“They’re painting,” said Candace Nelsen.
“Can I paint too?” Sawyer asked.
Sawyer couldn’t, because five local street and graffiti artists were busy giving the wall a fresh look on Saturday, adding their artist names – Sage, Milk, Newk, etc. – and a cartoonish painting alongside a small batch of existing art.
While graffiti is often viewed as something unwanted, slapdash and illegal, that’s what’s typically known as tagging – and that wasn’t what the artists painting the bakery wall were doing on Saturday. Instead, they were painstakingly making not only lawful, but solicited, graffiti and street art.
And the wall they were making it on wasn’t just any old wall.
It’s a rotating art wall, according to Sam Moore, who curates what’s painted there and who’s an artist in his own right, under the name Dker, pronounced “decayer.”
His ultimate goal is to turn the painting of the art wall each month into an all-day event with food trucks, music, break dancing and painting. That vision started to come true Saturday, with people stopping by to take photos and talk to artists.
“We don’t have anything for our street artists, and a lot of bigger cities do,” Moore said.
Creating a space for street and graffiti artists gives them a place they belong, he said.
“Because the neighborhood is yours, you don’t destroy it,” Moore said.
The Boots wall features both graffiti and street art. Graffiti artists often write their name or a phrase, while street art is done with permission because of the time it takes to paint, said Eddie Reyes, an artist who signs his work “Milk.”
“It’s a lot different to flow letters than it is to create an art piece,” Reyes said.
There are “unwritten rules” to graffiti, and painting in an area like downtown is something Reyes and fellow artist David Luna, who goes by “Sage,” say they don’t do.
“It’s really hard to get permission, especially somewhere like right here,” Luna said.
Having a space is important, Luna said, because it offers artists like him a canvas where they can create.
“Growing up in a smaller town there’s not really an art scene,” said Reyes.
Luna and Reyes grew up in Moses Lake.
“Over there, it’s a lot more gangs than it is actual art pieces,” Reyes said.
The 20-year-olds moved to Spokane together and continue to create graffiti together.
For Reyes, graffiti is another form of artistic expression separate from his apprenticeship at Anchored Art, a local tattoo shop. He’s passionate about both but graffiti is “more therapeutic,” Reyes said.
The man helping provide this therapy is Moore, a 45-year-old graphic designer by day and an artist by night.
About three years ago, he started making mosaics out of small, plastic Perler beads. He started gluing them around town.
They had motifs like a cartoon white person and black person with a little heart above them, or an old person and a child with a heart as well. The goal was to encourage racial healing and to comment on racial injustice, Moore said.
“I’m all about civil rights, but I didn’t really have a means of doing that,” he said. “I had no connections in our city government. I didn’t really know any business people.”
So he went into his favorite coffee shop, Boots Bakery, and asked the owner, Allison Collins, if he could hang his mosaics on the building’s large outdoor brick wall.
“She said yes and gave me the biggest hug,” Moore recalled.
Dan Spaulding, who owns the bakery building, got on board too.
“They approached me and asked me if it was cool and we said yes,” Spaulding said.
For Spaulding, unwanted graffiti can be frustrating, especially on an old building with unpainted brick.
“These old brick buildings, you’ll never get them the same again,” he said.
He hopes that encouraging young artists to put time and effort into their work will curb basic tagging.
“My hope is that these guys would learn to paint and draw properly and take their art even further,” Spaulding said.
Moore recalled an instance when Spaulding came out and saw a young artist spray-painting on his building. Instead of getting upset, Spaulding offered to give him art lessons.
Once Spaulding and Collins were on board, Moore started putting up his own Perler bead art on the wall.
He filled a large section of the wall with his art, but kids started taking them down.
“I lost about 2,000 hours worth of work,” he said. “The nature of street art is that it’s ephemeral and it belongs to everybody – like, even the jerks. And so I shouldn’t be so attached.”
Street art, graffiti and murals all have different history, Moore said.
“I feel that people see graffiti and they take it as a sign of a declining neighborhood,” he said. “It’s an indicator that they aren’t keeping the neighborhood up.”
A lot of young people who make graffiti don’t understand the damage they cause, he said.
“They don’t have any connections to the business community or anybody who actually owns anything,” Moore said.
People often associate graffiti with gangs, but in Spokane there’s no affiliation, he said.
“These are ethical, morally straight people who simply don’t have an outlet for their art,” Moore said. “They’re saying, you know what, this system wasn’t meant for me but, damn it, I exist.”
Through graffiti, Moore hopes to bring people together who normally wouldn’t come across hip-hop culture.
“In a hip-hop context, it’s a very positive social movement that’s all about bringing people up, especially people of color,” he said.
Moore acknowledges that not everyone in Spokane understands street culture, but hopes that being visible in the community will help.
“We live in a city that’s kind of conservative, and there hasn’t been a lot of exposure to street culture,” he said. “So people don’t necessarily understand the difference between dangerous street people and just street-culture people.”
A notable supporter of street art is City Councilwoman Kate Burke.
“I support local artists, and I think free walls are a cool concept,” Burke said.
Amber Hoit is a full-time artist who does both murals and commissioned pieces.
Hoit has been painting since she was a child and hopes to help other young artists learn and grow.
“I’m just trying to stay in the community and be involved as much as I can,” said Hoit, who works with the nonprofit If You Could Save Just One.
She recently painted a mural in the Garland District and has been getting more and more paid work as demand in Spokane grows. The Boots wall is different because it’s community-based, Hoit said.
“I think Spokane really needs this,” Hoit she said. “It helps a lot of youth and pushes them in a different direction.”
She mentors younger artists who started out just tagging buildings and brings them on jobs with her to encourage them to grow, Hoit said.
The youngest artist painting Saturday was 14-year-old Margo Moore, Sam Moore’s daughter.
She made her street-art debut by painting a vintage Polaroid camera.
Moore admits she likes the idea of her dad running a graffiti wall.
“I think it’s cool. No one else really does it.”
As artists finished their pieces, Moore was already thinking about next month.
An artist known simply as “Chris” plans to paint over his current mural of a woman’s piercing black eyes with a Halloween-themed piece.
A large, colorful piece by the artist Zemek will remain intact all winter, Moore said.
The piece is under one of Zemek’s works from the 1990s.
Zemek has been making graffiti for “probably longer than anyone else in town,” Moore said. His current piece was done last week in a 14-hour-long session.
Part of why certain pieces stay up for longer than others at Boots is the status of the artist. However, Moore said, the pieces painted next month will stay up all winter because “paint doesn’t work right in the cold.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.