Seattle’s Sticky Situation
Considered by many to be a living art installation, the Gum Wall is sought out by visitors and curiosity seekers who want to get a glimpse of the often odd-ball but enchanting spirit of Seattle.
Pike Place Market overlooks the Elliott Bay waterfront in Seattle, Washington. Opened on August 17, 1907, it is one of the oldest continually operated public farmers’ markets in the United States. Fresh food of every kind—from colorful produce, just-picked herbs, to fresh-caught fish—can be found among the market’s stalls. The stalls also feature handicrafts fabricated by local artisans from local materials (available as souvenirs, of course), antiques, flowers, ethnic cuisine, and a menagerie of curiosities tucked into every nook and cranny of this 3.6 hectare market.
One of the lesser-known attractions of the market, but one of the oddest, is the Gum Wall. This unusual attraction is considered by many to be a “living art installation” and is sought out by curiosity seekers and photographers wanting to capture the often odd-ball but enchanting spirit of Seattle. While there are those who would consider the Gum Wall a self-perpetuating act of vandalism, the majority of onlookers see the wall as an ever evolving communal public art project that presents just one more slightly wacky facet of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest personality, blending creativity with impromptu self-expression.
This must-see stop on a trip to Pike Place Market only requires a stroll down Post Alley. As its name implies, the wall is covered with gum, as in Bazooka bubblegum, Wrigley’s chewing gum, gums that freshen your breath, gums that whiten your teeth, and any other variety of gum that passersby are chewing. This rainbow collage of gum, haphazard at first glance, is actually neither static nor chaotic: rather it is a dynamic, organic, ever-evolving “people’s work of art.”
Sean Wood and Eric Torres, two Seattleites, return to the wall whenever they are at the market to check on its current state. “Every time I come here, there is always something new. As a true admirer of the wall, I, of course, always make sure to leave a piece of gum after each visit,” Wood comments as he unwraps his bubblegum. While each glob is a splash of color—bubblegum pink, minty green or licorice black—pieces are often linked together to tell a story. Some strings of gum spell out a name, others proclaim eternal love, and some create pictures. Wood explains, “There are different methods for putting gum on the wall. You can simply push the gum to the wall, creating a moon-like effect. If one wants to be more creative, a hardcore gummer can spell out their name or write a message with their gum. This obviously takes more pieces, more chewing to soften up the gum, and more time.” Gummers also use gum to anchor objects to the wall, such as coins (mainly pennies, nickels and dimes), cigarette butts, and oddities such as bottle caps, bobby pins and baseball cards.
Besides being a public artwork in progress, the Gum Wall is also the exterior wall of the Market Theater, running along Post Alley. The wall developed in the 1990s, when according to Market Theater employee Jay Hitt, “Theater attendee lines would wrap around the building. Waiting in line is boring, and theater goers began killing time by affixing/encasing coins in colorful gum blobs, giving the wall a shotgun effect of metallic bull’s-eye dots.” According to Hitt, “The Market Theater long ago gave up the futile effort of trying to clean the gum off the wall. No sooner would the wall be stripped bare, when another line would form and up went more gum as those in line whiled away the time creating their own personal artistic statement.”
The theater management has come to view the Gum Wall as an impromptu work of art by theater patrons that mimics the improvisational works that are presented on the stage inside. While the Gum Wall will always be a part of the theater, if for no reason than it is a structural load-bearing wall, it has taken on an identity and life of its own. Testimony to this is that the Gum Wall is now featured in promotional advertisements for both the theater and the Pike Place Market. Today, it is listed among Seattle’s top attractions in the company of the Space Needle tower and the Experience Music Project and is prominently highlighted on the Pike Place Market fold-out tourist map. “The Gum Wall has become a part of the theater. We even offer a Gum Wall cocktail at our bar, and the Gum Wall is often a feature of our back-drop for improvised skits,” says Hitt. The city keeps the surrounding environs gum-free (as best it can), but leaves the Gum Wall to grow.
Kaitlin McVey is a writer living in Seattle, Washington.