Anticipation filled the third-grade room at Lister Elementary as Mrs. Lam’s students watched a video educating them on a legacy and giving them a mystery to protect. Then the children stood to swear a solemn oath of secrecy and, more excited than Ralphie with his Little Orphan Annie decoder pin, were read a letter from an elusive leader of Tacoma’s infamous underground art scene.
The children were now ready to embark on their mission of bringing art to all parts of our city. They were Official Monkeyshiners.
Of all the things I love about Tacoma, Monkeyshine is perhaps the most difficult for me to explain to outsiders. Each winter, in celebration of Chinese New Year, Tacomans get out of their warm beds, check their flashlights for fresh batteries, and venture out into the dark cold.
The morning is still quiet, but a rustle of excitement builds as we all wade together through puddles, ponds, and all manner of shrubbery in search of decorated glass orbs. “You do what? Why?” It’s for the love.
Now in its 15th year (the Year of the Dog), Monkeyshines was created by Ms. Monkey, an anonymous artist (artists?) to breathe art into the everyday life of the city during some of the darkest days of winter. Over time a community has developed, a following of artists, adventure seekers, and everyday people just out to have a fun time with family, friends, and neighbors.
In the spirit of the fun, it’s also birthed the “Rogue Monkeys,” such as the Two Button Monkeys who arrived at Lister as ambassadors. They team with the clandestine Ms. Monkey in bringing joy and delight to the people of Tacoma.
In her letter to the kids at Lister, as she declared them to be “Official Monkeyshiners,” Ms. Monkey told them that, “Monkeyshines is about our ability to positively impact each other.” So, on that sunny afternoon, third graders created more than 1,000 colorful buttons; some to hide, some to keep, and all to be part of something bigger than themselves.
This is the second year students at Lister have been chosen to participate in this secret artistic endeavor. The Two Button Monkeys are passionate about including children from all parts of the city, because Monkeyshines is, “A community wide, city wide experience. Art is a valuable component of education, it helps people who learn in different ways.” They hope that their work with the students at Lister will inspire more artists of all genres to come alongside Tacoma schools and invest in giving the children an appreciation for the arts.
Their own vision is to reach out to more schools every year and hopefully help children all over Tacoma be part of this unique art development in our city. Mrs. Lam was grateful for the positive lesson her students were able to learn in such a fun way, “My kids absolutely loved the idea of doing something for their school. Doing it in secret took generosity to a whole new level. This gave them the chance not only to participate but learn their city’s history.”
The Two Button Monkeys agree, leaving the classroom, “feeling great and energized.” And they love that their time at Lister reflects one of the best aspects about Monkeyshines — we all have a bit of Monkeyshine in us.
The movement has grown in such an inclusive way because the people of Tacoma feel like they are part of the art. Everyone can paint a rock to hide, sneak a glass button into a Little Free Library, or venture out to pick up a glass treasure and also pick up some garbage, leaving our city more beautiful.
When else are you going to walk down 6th Avenue on a freezing cold morning and ask the strangers next to you if they’ve found anything yet? Because everyone knows we’re all on this hunt together. Tacoma may still have its challenges, but Monkeyshines helps remind us to look at our city with fresh eyes and discover its beauty. As one of the Two Button Monkeys says, “I love Tacoma, it’s my Monkeyshine.”
Images by Kristin Luippold