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Urban artists: Elaborate and now-celebrated art form uses buildings as canvas

Graffiti surrounds a basketball hoop at a popular graffiti wall in Yakima.

Hidden in back alleys, stuck to the side of garages and scrawled across public structures, graffiti has been present in the Yakima Valley for decades. With it comes disapproving glances from passers-by and headaches for those who must remove it.

But the tide has changed in recent years, and some in Yakima are starting to elevate the once-vilified tags to an elaborate and celebrated art form.

To witness this trend, a person need only look at the walls of The Barrel and surrounding buildings on Ranchrite Road, near the Nob Hill overpass.

Made with vivid strokes of color, line work and themes, the art covering the walls of The Barrel and the story behind it provide a glimpse into an emerging trend in Yakima.

When Jeremy Sandino took over the property in 2014, it was commonly hit by taggers. He said because of his building’s location, he knew he had to fight it.

The solution was simple, he said: Either hate them or join them. He chose to join.

Two years ago, Sandino hosted an urban art show that brought in artists from around the country. Over the course of a day, the artists covered the wall with graffiti art. Those artists said the event was the biggest collaboration between artists they had ever seen.

Instead of paying the artists, Sandino offered the backside of The Barrel so artists could freely practice their art at any time. He said the wall is redone about every six weeks.

Since then he hasn’t had any problems with unwanted graffiti.

“I don’t have to worry about street taggers coming in because there’s an unspoken rule that you don’t mess with other people’s art,” Sandino said.

After the artists finished the wall, surrounding businesses got in on the trend and had art done on their buildings as well. Now, the buildings on Ranchrite Road serve as a sort of urban art gallery.

Sandino, who also coaches for the Wine Country Crushers roller derby team that practices in The Barrel, said people from around the Valley have held photo shoots with the art as the background. The art has also earned mention in nationally circulated urban art magazines.

He plans to invite artists back next year to paint over the existing art.

“We were working really hard to bring a sports complex to Yakima and clean the place up,” Sandino said. “This helps give us exposure and more people feel less threatened coming here.”

Sandino admitted that the art style is not good for every location. He said it wouldn’t fit a professional medical location, but it fits well in the industrial area where his building is.

The Barrel isn’t the only place to embrace the new trend. Graffiti art can be found behind Cost Less Carpet on Martin Luther King Boulevard, Jagz Barber Shop, Eves Garden and elsewhere.

The large mural at the corner of Sixth Street and Lincoln Avenue is especially notable because it is the first piece of graffiti art commissioned by the city via the Yakima Police Department’s Gang Prevention Unit.

In 2016, the city had taken some art from The Barrel and wrapped it around a utility box on the corner of 40th and Summitview avenues. The box is one of nine around town with the art.

Trevor Braden, 31, is the artist for the piece commissioned by the police department. He has been creating graffiti art for years under the street name Tabs.

Braden grew up in Toppenish, a city known for its murals, and discovered his love for art in elementary school. At 15, he used a spray can for the first time and started practicing legally.

Four years ago, he started a business with his brother, Garrett Mesplie. Braden said he usually works on one mural a week. At any given time he could be working on two to three projects.

He’s seen graffiti art rise in popularity over the past couple of years and said that can be attributed to the maturing of artists and a desire by artists to educate people about the art form.

“People want to do something that shows a different skill set from gang tags,” Braden said. “I’ve seen lots of guys start with basic tags and then they want to do something different and start doing bubble letters and then go into murals. ... Many people also just jump straight into doing murals after using brushes.”

He said the rise could also be because people want to see different types of art in Yakima.

Braden is one member of a larger community of urban artists creating graffiti art.

“They’re a hushed community because they don’t want to be labeled a tagger; they prefer ‘urban artists’,” Sandino said. “They are very respectable, professional people. If they don’t have permission, they don’t do it.”