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Is it art? A colorful story in the U District

Most people who spent time at the UW know about Tubs, the semi-infamous business on the corner of 50th and Roosevelt that offered hot tubs by the hour. Of course, the cleanliness of the private tubs was always a subject of spirited debate.

In 2007, Tubs went to the big sauna in the sky. The intention was to turn the building into condominiums, but the down economy has meant the building has stood vacant since then. Not surprisingly, an empty building would occasionally get tagged with graffiti. In 2009, a local artist collective, Free Sheep Foundation, got permission to create a temporary art installation. They invited graffiti artists to decorate both the inside and outside of the building.

As you can imagine, there’s still no evidence they are moving ahead with the condos. With the owner’s approval, the building has become a magnet for graffiti artists and taggers—all four walls are covered with a constantly changing mural (or unsightly mess, depending on your perspective).

Not all of its neighbors are happy—The Daily talked to local business owners who consider it an eyesore that only encourages tagging. Q13 FOX-TV also reported on it earlier this year.

There’s a city ordinance that requires businesses to clean up graffiti within 10 days, but it doesn’t apply in this case because the owner considers it artwork. What do you think? A canvas for artists and an outlet that prevents other buildings from getting tagged? Or just plain ugly?

There are more than 1,400 photos in a Flickr group devoted to the Tubs building if you haven’t had a chance to see it in person.

Photos by Eyes On My World.


19 Responses to “Is it art? A colorful story in the U District”

  1. Bird-dog wrote:
    August 13, 2010

    This is a horrific eye-sore and encourages taggers to do graffiti. Graffiti is illegal and costs local businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars because the businesses have to paint over the graffiti on their premises. e.g. The Indian restaurant across the street had a beautiful India mural, including the Taj Mahal. Unfortunately the mural isn’t there anymore because of the graffiti blight. The City of Seattle should be encouraged to photograph each tagger that does graffiti on the “free wall”, and use it for evidence when convicting taggers of destruction of business (graffiti) elsewhere.

    • IKing wrote:
      August 20, 2010

      Let me get this straight: you’re proposing using evidence of *lawful* activity to prosecute (or is it persecute) those individuals? I used to work in the legal profession, and I wrote legal memoranda based on very clear case law that would preclude such evidence from consideration. Besides that, it’s a morally repugnant slippery slope. How about if we track everyone who buys spraypaint? Let’s create a registry of everyone who can draw a straight line.

      And if you don’t like the way the art walls look, perhaps you should find another sidewalk to walk. We have thousands of them.

      • Gary Nichols wrote:
        August 22, 2010

        It is a fact that taggers do not always contain thier efforts to legal venues and dealers mark thier territory. But I think that free walls are as much a part of urban life as long as sidewalks and theatre thrive. Perhaps a solution to whether urban jungle graffiti free walls should be allowed could be voted on be each individual community. In my town tagging is punishable by jail time with no exceptions when caught.

    • Craig wrote:
      August 26, 2010


      Allow me to clarify some things for you.

      a) The murals and extravagant works pictured above are examples of a “piece” (short form of a masterpiece). These obviously take a lot of skill, medium (can, paint, type of wall, etc.) control and take years of artistic development depending on the quality. Those who can produce some of these kind of works on Tubs are truly artists of their genre.
      b) The quicker pseudo-mural, usually with only one color but still has some decent artistic merit, is called a “bomb”. This historically stems from the practice of graffiti artists wanting their presence to be known in public places while being highly visible. I.e. you can’t drop a bomb without it going unnoticed.
      c) The bottom of the totem pole is what’s called a “Tag”. Usually a word/name/alias simply written stylistically. Tags have been adopted by gangs wishing to make their “territory” known to other gangs.

      Free-walls allow the artists to express themselves LAWFULLY and in a safe and controlled environment. They are also the most concentrated arena in which these impressive “pieces” can be viewed. Keep in mind a fair amount of the impressive artists (yes, some of the very people who’s work is seen on the Tubs building) are legitimate businessmen and women who own their own businesses (tattoo shops, screen printing, etc.).

      Yes, there are those who vandalize private property. These may include the artists I mentioned above as well as gang members and many other types of people. This is not hidden, it is a well known fact. What is also known is THAT IT’S ILLEGAL. No one in their right mind would condone this behavior. The owner of the Tubs building saw use in an abandoned building and allowed it to be utilized by a diverse urban population.

      The issue at hand is the City Ordinance has no bearing on this, nor should it. It is PRIVATE PROPERTY WITH APPROVAL FROM THE PROPERTY OWNER. If they covered it with nothing but murals of “My Little Ponies” or “Hannah Montana” (of which I would be absolutely repulsed) I would still respect their lawful constitutional, state, and city-ordained rights to put whatever they want on their building (assuming it isn’t grossly offensive beyond a doubt).

      If the city were to try to use a photograph of those doing the works on Tubs to prosecute those same people for a visually-determined exact copy on private property, even if the artists were smiling, pointing at their work, and holding signs that say “I did this!”, the Judge would quickly throw out the case due to insufficient evidence.

      IN SUM
      Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean you can’t take it away. This is America, and although our definitions of “Patriotism” and “Freedom” might differ, the law and our rights in this country are clearly set in stone for all to view.

      • Bryan Henderson wrote:
        August 30, 2010

        There are lots of ways that “ownership” of a piece of property doesn’t entitle one to do things with it that hurt the neighbors, including maintaining eyesores.

        But grafitti cleanup laws aren’t really about that. There are other more general laws that force people to clean up their property, but a grafitti law like Seattle’s (a property owner must immediately erase any grafitti) are special, and quite controversial in their creative approach to public duty, not to mention the punish-the-victim aspect.

        The point isn’t to protect the eyes of passers-by. It’s to stop other buildings from getting tagged and save their owners the cost of cleanup. When a tagger expects his work to disappear immediately, he won’t tag in the first place.

        So from that point of view, the ordinance shouldn’t apply to the Tubs building. That an artist’s work remains on that wall won’t increase his expectations at all that his work will remain on some other, non-free, wall.

  2. Elise wrote:
    August 13, 2010

    I’ve been wondering what the deal was with that building. Thanks, Mark! I’ve never been much of a grafitti hater, so I think it looks cool.

  3. Leah wrote:
    August 16, 2010

    I think it’s fantastic. To my mind, there is a huge difference between unsightly tagging and actual graffiti art. I dislike tagging as much as the next person. But show me a beautiful graffiti mural that took time and effort any day! Love it!

  4. Samuel Ephrem wrote:
    August 17, 2010

    What is art in the first place? Isn’t art concerned with the free, uninhibited expression, whether it is appealing or appalling? If that is so, then there is no question about the fact that griaffiti is art. For the griaffiti artists, this question is nonsensical for the rest of us it is a matter of whether we allow it in our society and to what extent.

  5. Voice wrote:
    August 20, 2010

    Seattle has had an interesting history with what are called “free walls” for a long time. Back in the mid-nineties the wall alongside the Comet Tavern used to be a free wall, a place where graffiti artists from all over, resident artists and visiting artists as well, to join together to appreciate each other’s styles and techniques. That got shut down further criminalizing grafitti art. Let’s face it, graffiti is not going to disappear.
    To me, turning Tubs into a free wall has reinvigorated the true spirit of Seattle’s graffiti scene. We represent hip-hop here in the 2-0-6. We have pride in our cultural art forms, one of which is graffiti.
    The old Tubs building is amazing, keep doin what you do graf artists all over the world.

  6. IKing wrote:
    August 20, 2010

    Remember when John Ashcroft decided that a bunch of art in DC was ‘pornographic’ and wanted it draped? Who are we as a community? Perhaps if there were more venues such as this for lawful exercise of these artists’ talents, we would have *less* tagging as vandalism. It wouldn’t completely go away – draw a line and there’s always someone who will cross it. But I can’t help but think an artist would rather be able to take credit for his/her work publicly, rather than hide from prosecution.

  7. Onysia wrote:
    August 23, 2010

    Graffi is Art simple tags are not. My opinion. I have seen some of the most wonderful art on walls all over the world. Glad that Tubs is a place for both…..

  8. Theresa Ip Froehlich wrote:
    August 25, 2010

    Art is in the eye of the beholder. I drive by this building at least a couple of times a week. If it is art, it is not very pleasing art!

    Theresa Ip Froehlich, Certified Life Coach

  9. Tim wrote:
    August 26, 2010

    In my opinion, a McDonald’s billboard is much more of an eyesore than anything on Tubs. People should be protesting the companies and visual obstructions that are really causing our society to go down the toilet. Graffiti can be a problem, but the kids that are piecing on the Tubs building are putting time, energy, and their genuine love for art on those walls. In addition to that, they aren’t even getting paid.

    I think we should be asking ourselves why we are so accepting of big advertisements that tell us we should buy heavily processed, unhealthy food, than a colorful mural.

  10. Paul wrote:
    August 26, 2010

    There are plenty of plain walls in the city to look at if you are bothered by graffiti. It would be horrible to stop people from producing art when doing it legally, especially on a college campus.

  11. Jazon wrote:
    August 26, 2010

    Live Free or Die!

  12. Redwing wrote:
    August 26, 2010

    Tim was half right in his comments about the spread of corporate graffiti.

    Ugly is ugly whether it is a glowing sign, bad graffiti, or a bad building.

    However, in his bashing of corporations, he forgot to mention their willing partners. The “government” is a major player and has been pushing the flush lever faster than the sewer can handle the waste. The result is the economy and society to get to take a fast circular ride down the white throne.

    • Bryan Henderson wrote:
      August 30, 2010

      And their other partners: the citizens, who willingly elect government leaders who support the corporations and the corporations’ customers, who finance their activities.

  13. Leonard wrote:
    August 28, 2010

    I can only assume there exists no covenent or city ordinance that would prevent this type of display. I know there are plenty of rules for a legitimate business to follow with regard to signage and outdoor advertising. If that is the case this structure is just one more place that some will love and some will be repulsed. That’s what makes this America.

    Personally I wish it were still the District Tavern. I used to play in bands there in the early 70’s and it was a great venue.

  14. Derek Belt wrote:
    September 8, 2010

    Just a heads up that wrote a story about this same topic a few weeks after ours was up and running. It’s a good story and is very detailed, and we are flattered they liked our post enough to expand on it. Thank you!

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