Tulalip youths combat vandalism with art

Sativa Johnson, left, and Smiley Dover-Simpson stand beside the mural that they and other Tulalip youths created at the Big Shot - Cyrus James Overpass, through the New Directions Music & Arts Program. - Kirk Boxleitner
Sativa Johnson, left, and Smiley Dover-Simpson stand beside the mural that they and other Tulalip youths created at the Big Shot - Cyrus James Overpass, through the New Directions Music & Arts Program.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

TULALIP — Tulalip youths transformed an area frequently targeted by vandals into a canvas to express their dreams, and Tribal elders and leaders alike took notice.

The Big Shot - Cyrus James Overpass next to the Tulalip Boys & Girls Club has seen its share of graffiti, and then some, but artist Andrew Morrison worked with Tribal youths in the New Directions Music & Arts Program after school through the fall and winter months to deter "taggers" with a mural that would speak to the young artists' hopes and heritage.

On Feb. 3, two of the more than two-dozen Tulalip youths who'd been among the most active contributors to this art project were honored, as the mural was officially unveiled.

Smiley Dover-Simpson's design for the mural was inspired by a vision he'd had while out in a canoe.

"I saw the killer whale as the savior of the sea, and the eagle watching out for us," Dover-Simpson said. "The mountain spirit was there too, looking out over everything."

"When I saw Smiley's drawing for the mural design, it hit me like a ton of bricks," said Morrison, who immersed the Tulalip youths of the New Directions Music & Arts Program in Native American art history before they began their work in earnest. "He's a smart young man with a bright future. Art like this empowers youths who might not be able to put into words what they mean to say."

Morrison recalled how Dover-Simpson and Sativa Johnson, who was also honored at the unveiling ceremony, were among the youths who worked through wind, rain and even snow to complete this "Healing Path" project. The project was a collaboration between the Tulalip Boys & Girls Club and the Evergreen Council on Problem Gambling to serve as an addictions prevention and intervention program for Tribal youth. One speaker credited the young artists' enduring enthusiasm to the hurdle they cleared before their work had even begun.

"The night before, they heard the site had been vandalized again," said Kim Holl, community outreach and education specialist for the Evergreen Council on Problem Gambling. "It was a crushing blow. You could see their optimism leaving. They looked defeated before they'd even tried, but when they had their talking circle, they realized that if they never began, they would never succeed. They finished their work seven weeks ago, and there's been no tagging since."

Tulalip Tribal Board member Don Hatch Jr. asserted that the young artists have helped discourage such graffiti through their positive example, while fellow Board member Glen Gobin joined Board Chair Mel Sheldon Jr. in deeming their work a worthy tribute to the Tribal elder for whom the overpass was named.

"These young ones make me proud," Hatch said. "I see a lot of power in the way they've changed things. People can look at this place and see that somebody respects it, through the work they've done on it."

"Big Shot believed in working together and loving one another," Gobin said. "He would say that you can break one piece of kindling, but a bundle of kindling can't be broken. Our kids came up with this. To you young ones, this is your overpass. You need to witness this moment and remember it, and stand together."

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