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Federal Way street artist seeks legal graffiti wall
Darkness covers his entire canvas. The air is cold and damp, and the cars rumbling over his head remind him that his time is limited.
Working from his free-hand template, and using the light from his phone, he shakes his can, makes sure his cap is clear, leans in and starts his next line.
Unbeknownst to most, Elrik is hard at work on his latest piece of street art.
Elrik is an alias, used by a Federal Way resident to avoid unwanted attention. Although he regards his work as more than just vandalism, if caught, he faces a charge of malicious mischief in the third degree, which could include jail time and a fine of up to $500.
“It would be a different story," said Elrik, "if Federal Way had a free wall.”
Elrik is referring to one of two walls within the Seattle city limits that allows artists like him to practice their art from dawn until dusk. The most popular of these is in the South Downtown neighborhood, about 10 blocks south of Safeco Field.
“Right now there are about six safe places I can work around Federal Way, if you don't include my room,” he said.
Elrik's definition of safe refers to both the lack of police presence as well as other hazards.
“I'm usually out late at night, so I've run into all kinds of problems," he said. "Crackheads, gang-bangers, dealers, drunks, you name it, I've dealt with it.”
Elrik proposed that the old AMC Theatres property on 20th Avenue South near the Federal Way Transit Center would be a perfect place for a free wall.
“If you've seen all the cover-ups on that retaining wall," said Elrik, "you'd know it's already a popular spot.”
(Pictured: Elrik working on a piece earlier this month at a free wall in Seattle.)
Street art in Federal Way
Is there room in Federal Way to accommodate artists like Elrik?
Federal Way City Councilman Bob Celski thinks that a free wall may have a place within the city.
“I equate it to a skate park,” said Celski. “Without one we'd have skaters everywhere, doing tricks in parking lots and residential streets. The same might be true for street art.”
The councilman agrees that a free wall may reduce vandalism by providing an outlet for artists like Elrik. However, Celski doesn't think the middle of downtown Federal Way would be the proper place.
“When you consider that the SoDo neighborhood isn't Seattle's city core, the same would probably be true in Federal Way,” said Celski. “Not right in the middle of downtown, but maybe somewhere.”
Councilwoman Susan Honda, who was head of Federal Way's Arts Commission until her election to the council last November, said that the idea of a graffiti wall has been discussed before.
“From the research I did, I found that some cities loved having a space where artists could express themselves with a wall,” said Honda. “I also found that some cities had problems monitoring the graffiti wall and ended up closing them.”
As a result of research and staff recommendations, the commission abandoned the proposal of a free graffiti wall.
Although the commission decided not to install a free wall, Honda said that there is some merit within street art.
“I do believe that some of the street art, as it is sometimes called, is nicely done,” she said. “I always find it interesting to look at and wonder what it means, if it means anything at all.”
(Pictured: Retaining wall of the AMC Theatres property on 20th Avenue South in Federal Way. The graffiti has been covered up.)
Graffiti vs. art
At this time, Federal Way has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to graffiti.
Chris Carrel, communications and grant coordinator for Federal Way, said that graffiti affects how the community looks and encourages illegal behavior.
“The city employs two part-time staff for graffiti removal," Carrel said. "It's been a high priority for the council to remove graffiti once it's discovered.”
To get graffiti removed, residents must first lodge a complaint with the city. Once the complaint has been filed, the city releases a notice of violation for the property containing the graffiti.
“We understand that those people that make the complaint are victims of a crime," Carrel said. "If they are unable to remove the graffiti on their own the city is willing to work with them.”
Even though the city maintains zero tolerance toward graffiti, Elrik will not be deterred from doing what he loves.
“I do what I do with intent and care. Time is usually a factor and there is often a message within my work,” he said.
The thing that impresses Elrik the most about free walls, like the one in SoDo, is that the artists there usually police the property themselves.
For the most part the artists dispose of empty cans and used caps, and keep violence and gang activity to a minimum. He also said that keeping artists from working during the night hours would go a long way toward improving safety.
“Seattle is so much more urban that Federal Way, I doubt we'd see all the problems that a city like Seattle faces,” said Elrik.
Elrik said that for something like a free wall to be established in Federal Way, the community would have to understand that this issue branches much further than vandalism.
“In some other countries, street art actually raises property values. This is an art form that anyone can embrace and a free wall would go perfectly with a performing arts center.”
Click here to see photos of Elrik's work at the Seattle free wall.