If you've driven down the 900 block of Market Street in the past couple of months, you have probably noticed the spectacular new mural on the side of the Rialto Theater. Like much of Tacoma's greatest art, it arrived with little celebration or acclaim, despite its beauty, grandeur and mystique. The mural's humble debut is representative of the modest and visionary young artists who created it: Tacoma's Chris Jordan and Kenji Stoll. Jordan, 20, and Stoll, 19, are homegrown visual artists and teachers who work closely with Tacoma-based hip-hop organization Fab-5. Fab-5 is a grassroots operation that began as a partnership between hip-hop musicians, dancers, visual artists and organizers, and has grown into an education-centered nonprofit. The two artists teach visual art at Fab-5's L.I.F.E program and also work on Fab-5-organized artistic endeavors like the Rialto Mural.
The idea for a mural near the corner of Market and 9th was started by leaders at Urban Grace who applied for a grant to beautify a part of downtown that had been deemed a "blight" by local leaders and residents. Urban Grace contacted Eddie Sumlin, director of Fab-5, who turned to Chris Jordan and Kenji Stoll to carry out the project.
Jordan and Stoll combined elements inspired by Middle Eastern art with their graffiti-influenced style. The artists relished the opportunity to combine two often misunderstood cultures to create a thought provoking work of art.
"We wanted to create a commentary relating how some things are perceived when people think of the Middle East and also the kind of art we do as graffiti artists," explains Stoll. "The misconceptions basically, showing how things are beautiful."
The precise meaning of the mural and the words represented have been left undisclosed by the artists. Jordan says there is no right or wrong perception. He hopes however complex or elementary an individual's conclusion, they will find it positive. Of all art he says, "Even if people can't understand necessarily what it's about, it's not vain if it's something that matters to them that gives them hope and inspiration."
Many have used the term ‘graffiti' to describe the mural's artistic genre, but Stoll and Jordan are hesitant to agree. They agree that as artists they are rooted in graffiti, but differ in their opinions about whether or not they are graffiti artists or if the mural is graffiti.
"I identify as a graffiti artist in the respect that I do graffiti art, so it would be sort of an insult to be ashamed of that," Jordan explains. "Even with the package that it comes from, what we do is an example of what it has meant and what it can mean to be a graffiti artist as much as anything else, I've never been ashamed of that."
Jordan likens the use of the term graffiti to one of Tacoma's most well-known neighborhoods: "It's kind of like how people want to call Hilltop ‘Upper Tacoma‘," he remarks. "As a person who's lived there I like the idea of it being Hilltop, and as a graffiti artist I like the idea of doing graffiti."
Stoll hesitates to use any sort of term to describe the mural, "It's hard to put a label on it because it's so many things; it's abstract, it's community based, it's graffiti, it's urban, it's all these things but it doesn't fall under one umbrella."
The two artists say their principle goals are educating young people and encouraging them to pursue their passions.
"What's cool about art is the ability it gives you to share what's inside of you," says Jordan. "There are a lot of young people that don't fit into the boxes people have for them but they want to belong. My dream is to show them they don't have to fit into to other people's boxes and I think art is a really magnificent way to do that."
Jordan and Stoll are flattered and humbled by the warm reception the mural has received. They encourage the community to accept the work with an open, positive attitude.
"I hope that people will see it in a positive light, just for what it is," explains Stoll. "A mural on a wall that people painted, not out of rebellion, or out of any of those kinds of things, but just out of wanting to paint something beautiful for the city to enjoy."