Long before Tacoma's Lincoln District revamp, high school art students livened the neighborhood

Much attention has been paid to the City of Tacoma’s Lincoln District Revitalization Project, a $4.25 million public works effort that will revamp the neighborhood by upgrading roads and sidewalks, and creating public art and neighborhood gateways along the district’s primary arterial corridor, which covers a stretch of South 38th Street from Tacoma Avenue South to South Thompson Street.

But some Tacoma residents might wonder what will happen to the hand-painted, kiosk-mounted signs (‘Welcome to the Lincoln International Business District’) that are sprinkled like ghost murals throughout the neighborhood. Along with the bright red decorative and ornamental street lamps, these weathered and faded wood fixtures (pictured below) — created approximately 25 years ago by Lincoln High School students under the guidance of Kathy Martin, an artist who taught at Lincoln High School beginning in 1986 until she retired in 2002 — provide neighborhood character.

According to City of Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride, the signs and kiosks are not part of the city’s municipal art collection.

“The community hasn’t decided what to do with those yet,” added Debbie Bingham, the International Program Development Specialist in the City of Tacoma’s Community and Economic Development Department. She noted the signs will need to be removed when contractors build new sidewalks. But she believes they will be reused somewhere else in the neighborhood. “They won’t be trashed.”

The Tacoma Daily Index met Martin this week at Marlene’s Market & Deli (incidentally, she recently finished painting a mural of the Murray Morgan Bridge on a large wall inside the store) to discuss the history of the old signs and kiosks.

One of several hand-painted, kiosk-mounted signs created approximately 25 years ago by Lincoln High School students under the guidance of former art teacher Kathy Martin. (FILE PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)
One of several hand-painted, kiosk-mounted signs created approximately 25 years ago by Lincoln High School students under the guidance of former art teacher Kathy Martin. (FILE PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: How did this idea for creating signs and kiosks for the neighborhood come to be?

KATHY MARTIN: We did quite a few jobs for the Lincoln community. One of the first ones I remember was the little pharmacy on the corner. They asked us to paint a pestle and mortar on their wall. One of my students wanted to do it, so we went over and talked about mural painting. Every class period, he would check in and then walk on over to the pharmacy and do the mural until he got done. That was sort of neat.

For [the signs and kiosks] project, I was just approached by the principal. This was when the community was starting to name their areas, like the Stadium District and the Proctor District. We finally had a district, and [the City of Tacoma and local business owners] wanted to call it the Lincoln International District and they wanted some signage. I thought, “Well, I’ve got good, talented kids. We could work on something.” This was a big project, so I went down to my friend Tom Hodder — he was the shop teacher at Lincoln [High School] — and he was always willing to help out. He said, “Sure, we’ll build the kiosks for you and you put in the signage.”

The students and I — I can’t remember who I talked to from the area and the City on this; that was the late-1980s, I think — did up some drawings and they OK’d the plans and we went ahead with it. They had just installed these beautiful, fantastic lights. You know, the red ones. They were just up and it just caught my eye. I thought, “Boy, that is just beautiful.” I talked to the kids and said, “Can we work this in?” It’s called the Lincoln District, so of course we have to include Lincoln High School in there. I’m a professional calligrapher and taught calligraphy classes, so they worked on a lettering style, which was pretty unique.

We got it all put together. I think we did four different kiosks. They wanted to do a front and a back, both sides. We had Plexiglass on these [signs because] that was of the era of tagging. They were afraid that people were going to tag them and destroy them. [Plexiglass] seemed to solve the problem pretty well. Except that after all these years the moisture came in. I think that’s just particle board Masonite that we painted on. But we ‘primered’ it. It’s acrylic paint.

There is one boy who really was sort of the leader who spearheaded [things]. He did an awful lot. He had his own team and they did it in my painting class as a project. It was great. It took them a long time, but they painted them. We asked the City and the district for the cost of materials only. I wish I would have asked them for a little bit more money so that we could have done something for those kids or for the art department. Tom Hodder got the cost of materials for building the kiosks. I don’t know who installed them, but I imagine the City did. I bet they need to be restored. If they could save one or two of them, I would restore them just to have at least one of them there as sort of the first signage in their district.

INDEX: That’s what has intrigued me about those signs. There is a renewed interest in revitalizing the neighborhood and the City has just selected an artist to create public art. To my mind, those kiosks and signs seem to be one of the earliest sorts of public art in the Lincoln District. Am I wrong?

MARTIN: I’m trying to think if there were any other murals there. That’s sort of interesting. I guess you can go into the debate of what is art and what is graphic [design] and what is business. It was more of a real visual picture rather than just lettering and signage. We sort of just jumped on that.

INDEX: When did the project begin? When did the project end? How many students were involved?

MARTIN: It was a long time ago, but I would say it was at least a three-month [project]. I would say it was at least a month beforehand. But we sort of jumped on things. In school, if you don’t jump on it and plan for it, then all of a sudden the summer comes and it’s hard to start up again. I just remember it moved through real easily. We didn’t have to wait very long for approvals. It just sort of happened. The district got it done fast. Once we got those completed, they were up.

It was all done in blues and blacks and reds. The big light post was in red. We hand-made it all. We drew one up just the way we wanted and then we transferred that — we took our boards and Tom Hodder, the shop teacher, drew up what his kiosk would be, so we knew what size it would be. After we primered the boards, we transferred the drawing eight times on every single board and then we began painting in teams. They didn’t take ownership, like, two people didn’t complete one and say “This is ours.” They worked on it together. One person really loved to do the sharp lettering outline, so he did that on all of them. There’s quite a fading of dark tones to light, so another gal did that. It was a real great team effort and they did it as a whole, rather than just as an individual project. This was quite different. Usually, in the art class, each student did their own work.

INDEX: You mentioned they were individually hand-painted. If I understand this correctly, you could take each one and stack them next to each other, and they would look slightly different, correct?

MARTIN: Yes. They are each an original work. You’re right. I do remember the [student] leader’s name because he got the kids all going and made sure they were working and the project was on task because they worked independently at another end of the art room. They just came in, got the materials, did their work, and after I got the class going I would stop by and answer any questions. They were good. The fellow who was in charge, his name was Van Nguyen, he was the student in charge. He just made sure that it all went along. He had his team. He was sort of my right-hand man in all of this.

INDEX: Are we talking a class of thirty students working on the project?

MARTIN: I would say more like nine or ten kids all together. All teenagers and all different levels — sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

INDEX: I know the lamps are iconic, the high school is iconic. Were there other ideas or drafts that didn’t make it [on the signs]?

MARTIN: I don’t think we submitted more than the one that we designed and we liked. They didn’t ask us to go back to the drawing board and do something else. I don’t even think they helped as much in deciding it. They were just thrilled that we would take on the project. Maybe they did some pricing and realized it would be very expensive. Or maybe they just thought, “Let’s involve the high school.” I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I think I only met once or twice with any adult or any official. We just got the idea and we just went with it and they liked it.

INDEX: Are you surprised the signs have lasted this long?

MARTIN: I’m surprised they haven’t been destroyed. I have an idea that somebody might have taken them out and cleaned them and put them back. They did have a little roof or a little something over them. I would love to talk to somebody in the district to see if there was tagging on them. Did anybody spray paint them? Or maybe they respected [the signs]. Maybe they just stood there.

INDEX: Did you or the school ever do any kind of restoration or maintenance?

MARTIN: Once we handed them over —

INDEX: — That was it.

MARTIN: Yeah. We just sort of enjoyed having them. The kids loved them. They loved seeing them up as a permanent part of their community. It was great. In hindsight, I just wish I would have maybe made this more important than I did. I wish that when we were finished we would have had an assembly and I would have recognized all of those ten kids and we would have had the city council, the mayor, the international district in the assembly and just honored them and just said, “Your school really is the heart of this international district and we are so pleased that we can help out on this project.” But I didn’t. I wish I would have.

It was a project that we did from start to finish and we completed it. It was a good lesson to the kids to show them how you can possibly earn a living doing this. I made them all take pictures and cite their work. I told them to put it in their portfolio as something that they worked on. In art, you are trying to justify why you teach art in schools. Any time you can get some money, then I stress that.

INDEX: What do you hope happens to the signs? Do you think there is a chance for the signs to be saved and preserved? Or do you think that with the revitalization they might go away?

MARTIN: Well, since you called, I never really thought about it. I just sort of thought that it’s out of my hands. I have no control over this now. I think that maybe I should just give [the City] a call and say that I have talked to you and let me help in any way if we could do something with this. Can we restore [them]? Can we use [them]? Who can I talk to to maybe save at least just one of them? It would be fun to do. I’m going to do it because I think it’s worth it. I have some good teacher friends and they will write a letter for me if they need to. The signs are pretty nice. I would hate to just have them torn down and thrown in a pile.

To read the Tacoma Daily Indexs complete and comprehensive coverage of Tacoma’s Lincoln International Business District, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index, an award-winning journalist, and the author of several books. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.