Gum on the wall: How Seattle's strangest tourist attraction reflects the city's identity

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Now this is a classic Seattle debate: chewing over the meaning of the Post Alley gum wall.

This is Seattle’s most disgusting landmark, but a delicious one as well. It’s just the kind of thing planners couldn’t have predicted or designed. It is spontaneous, metastasizing, gross, impractical, hideous and a tourist attraction. It is gum graffiti that rides the line between art, bad habit and clinical compulsion.

Its popularity is mixed. Some have demanded that we “save” the gum wall from being blasted from existence in order to preserve the brick walls to which it adheres. It’s been described as a “cleaning,” and no doubt you could take the spit-slathered gum, throw it in a petri dish and spawn an entire civilization from the germs therein. It certainly wouldn’t be the first health hazard to which people have been exposed in a Pike Place alley.

I spoke recently to the annual meeting of Friends of the Market, the group that saved the Pike Place Market in the 1960s and '70s and continues to watchdog it today. I asked for a show of hands: A majority clearly don’t like the gum wall, a minority of hands indicated they liked it. It’s one of those accidental icons of the Market, like fish tossing. Who knew it would become a phenomenon? But for traditionalists, it’s a phenomenon more tolerated than embraced. This is a group of preservationists. They’re not leaping to preserve gumming up the walls.

Fascinating to me is the debate over what the gum wall means. Seattle loves to argue the meaning of things and load them with moral weight at every turn. A gum wall could never be just a gum wall.

The Stranger has featured a series of essays about what the gum wall says about us. The formidable thinker Charles Mudede has weighed in twice about it. First, the gum wall, as he sees it, is about race. “I have always seen that wall as the wall of white privilege. If white people felt strongly negative about it, and the practice was popular with, say, black people or Arab Americans, then believe me, there would be no fucking gum wall in Seattle.”

What do you do with a racist gum wall? Perhaps, like farmer’s markets, they could be established in a wider diversity of Seattle neighborhoods, which could be re-zoned to make them legal. Expand gum wall diversity by adding gooey chewed things from other cultures (one thinks of the staining of streets in India from betel spittle).

Mudede followed with a post maintaining that the “disgusting” gum wall was a travesty in one of Seattle’s “exceptionally magical” alleys. Seattle should be re-claiming alleys, utilizing alleys better. The gum wall is “rural idiocy” in what is a wonderful, rare European-style urban place. Gum walls, in other words, are an offense against urbanism.

This was followed by gum wall defenses and interpretations.

Rich Smith defends the gum wall as populist art—or a “collective durational art project.” He continues by invoking what can only be described as the Grunge Defense: “The wall serves to preserve Seattle's weird and grunge-y past. The multicolored gooeyness evokes the gloopy, psychedelic aesthetics of some of our best-loved artists. It's practically a physical manifestation of Mudhoney. 'Touch Me,' demands the wall. 'I'm Sick.' And so we touch. That's the Seattle spirit. Touching what others are afraid to touch. We're a touchy bunch.”

Forget white privilege, he argues, the gum wall is us, our gritty, unruly selves. And you have to admit, is the gum wall any more revolting than, say, the contrasting sterility of South Lake Union?

In another piece, Smith argues that it’s “an architectural Che Guevara T-shirt.” Perhaps that’s a bid to get Marxist Mudede to reconsider. “In its way, the gum wall is a testament to the power of persistent and communal transgression, a monument that invites us to tap in to that first fuck you, that first moment when we fought back against the system…”

It’s quirky, he writes, which is the more “digestible” form of transgressive.

Which puts me in mind of my one gum wall story: Back in the late '90s I was walking up Post Alley from the Seattle Weekly offices. Ahead of me was a respectable-looking businessman in a suit. When he reached the gum wall, he stopped, furtively looked around, then quickly popped off a piece of gum and put it in his mouth and scuttled off.

Transgressive, I agree, but hardly digestible.

The gum wall won’t be the first Seattle landmark blasted away by water canons—think Denny Hill, which was flattened to create the Denny Regrade in what is now Belltown. But I suspect the phenomenon will resurrect. But with all this discussion, we’re now sticking the wall with meanings, not just our used gum.

Leave it to Seattle to turn the gum wall into a civics lesson.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.