Off a dirt path in the Sehome Arboretum in Bellingham, Wash., in the deep shade and jungle-like humidity, an artist wearing paint splattered shorts stares down the concrete walls of the arboretum's water reservoir. The swarms of mosquitos do not faze him.
Unlike conventional artists Shawn Cass’s studio is the living, breathing world. Instead of a brush, Cass uses an aerosol spray can. The particular wall he stares at is his canvas for a mural of Bellingham. It is also his first commissioned paint job from the city. For a '90s kid” who grew up illegally tagging in Arkansas under the pseudonym “Ruckas,” it’s an exciting opportunity.
“It’s humbling for me,” Cass said.
The water reservoir is surrounded by a large four-sided concrete wall. On the sides not covered by dirt or foliage, there is a clash of expression. One wall is a sprawl of colorful graffiti about 30 feet long. The opposite wall is Cass’s latest work: a variety of native birds sitting on branches in the foreground of a black and white rendition of Bellingham Bay. The top of the wall reads “Bellingham c. 1900,” explaining the old-timey look and lack of the city’s current downtown area.
“When I painted the mural on the back of The Alamo –it’s a sunset view overlooking Bellingham Bay –I did it from the angle that if The Alamo building wasn’t there, and that wall wasn’t there, you’re kind of looking in the same direction as what you see in the mural,” Cass said.
The mural puts the viewer in the painting, but instead of seeing the present the viewer sees the past, like looking through a window into time. Cass used a similar time concept at The Alamo, his current residence. Looking at The Alamo’s mural, the viewer sees Bellingham as if the building was a window into the future, bright and colorful with flying cars and a Bellingham space needle.
John Shaughnessy, treasurer of the Sehome Neighborhood Association, said over the past few years graffiti tagging has increased in the neighborhood. The goal in the Sehome Arboretum is to fight fire with fire by using artwork to prevent graffiti taggers from vandalizing property.
Graffiti on campus is a different situation, said Western’s Director of Facilities Management, John Furman. Because of the abundance of graffiti on campus, putting up murals to cover it up would pose an insurmountable task, he said. Furman does not believe students are behind the campus graffiti problem. The campus spends about $25,000 a year on graffiti removal, he said.
Shaughnessy said the two ways to stop graffiti are to paint over it immediately, or to replace it with art. Though combatting campus graffiti might be a necessary task, Furman agrees with murals in the arboretum.
“For whatever reasons, graffiti artists tend to respect the work of other artists,” Furman said.
As a former illegal tagger, Cass said he would never tag over a piece of artwork. However, large corporate company and government buildings are fair game in the graffiti world, he said. It is looked down upon to tag personal property, Cass said.
Shaughnessy said his neighbor referred him to Cass, after employing Cass to paint a mural on his shed. When he viewed Cass’s murals painted on the outside of Pizza Pipeline and The Alamo, Shaughnessy said he knew Cass was the man for the job. Cass said he’s been painting murals around town for the last 10 years for businesses and residents.
Cass' landlord commissioned him to work on the Alamo's mural in exchange for a few months' worth of rent, whereas his current project in the arboretum required some hoops to jump through.
After getting the go-ahead from the Bellingham Public Works Department in the fall, Shaughnessy and Cass had to get the design approved from the Sehome Hill Arboretum Board of Governors. The board consists of eight members from Western, including Furman and people hand-picked by Mayor Kelli Linville and Western’s President Bruce Shepard, as well as one student appointed by the Associated Students. After some initial criticism, the board approved the design. Shaughnessy and Cass then had to get approval from the Bellingham Arts Commission before getting the final approval from the mayor.
“If nobody vandalizes [the murals] and it’s proven to work, they might likely give me a lot more opportunities to paint city walls as a graffiti removal project,” Cass said. “Homeowners or tourists or anyone coming into this town can either see a bunch of vandalism or they can see some nice murals.”
After more than 20 hours of work, Cass said he’s almost finished with one side of the reservoir’s mural. Cass will have spent more than 30 hours on the mural when it is finished. Cass’s work in the arboretum is not finished. Once the first side is finished he will start painting another mural over the graffiti on the opposite side. Shaughnessy said future murals might include the concrete walls on North Forest Street, just past the intersection of North State Street.