THE SCENE OF THE TEARDOWN Tariqa Waters came home to find her art destroyed in her already-destroyed neighborhood.
  • Courtesy of Tariqa Waters
  • THE SCENE OF THE TEARDOWN Tariqa Waters came home to find her art destroyed in her already-destroyed neighborhood.

Most public artists do not end up making art for right where they live. When Tariqa Waters got the commission from ARTSparks to create something this summer in Occidental Park, she thought about the place she lives across the street from. By name, it's a park, but by function, it's more like a war zone. Regulars live there for years, or pass through waiting for Section 8. The Men's Union Gospel Mission is close by.

Waters settled on a design of colored acrylic mirror boxes she'd mount embracing the trees. Each surface would be a bright color—for her kids, whose bedrooms face the park—and printed with a hashtag so you could take a selfie in the mirror and Tweet it out.

But each selfie would also shrewdly contain the surrounding park in all its non-photogenicity. You would be sending your pictures elsewhere, while the "natives" sat in the background, not equipped with bathrooms, let alone cell phones. Waters wanted the live community to come into implicit conflict with the insular, remote one online. She called the proposed piece No I in Self.

Then the reality of the park stepped in.

It started early, when she was installing. She'd planned the piece back in February when things were quiet. With the spring came serious drug action and aggression, she says. Waters is a fiery woman who chose to live in Pioneer Square rather than some more anodyne neighborhood when she moved to Seattle two years ago with her husband and two kids. But it's gotten "pretty drastic," she told me yesterday. "The police are out here all the time. I couldn’t even walk through the park to get proper measurements of the trees because it was made clear this was not my park by the new folks [the spring arrivals]." Her husband had to be with her all the time as she worked. With him there, she could talk to people, who said they felt unsafer than ever, and that there were fewer resources for homeless women than there used to be.

Then came First Thursday Art Walk and the festivalish opening of No I in Self. Artgoers were "extremely uncomfortable" at the prospect of walking down the line of mirrored trees, Waters noticed. She'd intended the hall-of-mirrors effect to convey "what's really going on, and how we as a community need to address it"—to convey the madness of a place like this at the heart of a wealthy city. She was able to drag a few people down the gantlet, but the art only exaggerated the silent ongoing war. "I felt like, 'I'm decorating the issue,'" she says.

The decoration didn't stand, anyway. By the next day most of the mirrors were bashed in. It wasn't defacement, it was demolition. Trying to get to the bottom of it, Waters heard conflicting stories from the park regulars she'd gotten to know while she was installing. It was a drunk tourist who came out of the bar, tore up the art, and then tried to stab a woman! He's in police custody. Or maybe he's released by now. Then, No, he's actually this other guy, we know who he is, but we don't want to talk about him, we got a picture of him doing it, though, here, look. Within days, Waters saw the guy in the photograph stroll right past her window to hang out in the park. Nothing in Occidental Park makes sense. Decoration doesn't, either, but maybe art can, Waters wonders. Most public artists make work for places other than where they live. This is different. The stakes are higher, and Waters' response to the vandalism is complex and inherently sophisticated. "I’m not just an artist installing in the park," she says. "This is my home."

POLICE TRUCK IN THE BACKGROUND The police are here all the time, the artist says. But nothing is improving.
  • Courtesy of Tariqa Waters
  • POLICE TRUCK IN THE BACKGROUND "The police are here all the time," the artist says. But nothing is improving.

"Folks have been like, 'Well, he just didn't like what he saw in the mirror,'" Waters says. "I'm like, 'Well, we need to talk about that!' There is good in that park, and there is a community in that park, and I feel like that needs to be extended their way as well, not just like, oh, they are a nuisance. They're the ones going through the shit, and that's real, that's something they have to navigate every day."

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Waters has a lot of clear mirrored acrylic left over, the stuff she hadn't printed, and she has access to the trees all summer. For every piece that's damaged, she's decided to hang clear mirror up higher, beyond easy reach.

"They're going to start looking like security mirrors around the trees," she says, rather than the carnivalesque colored boxes of the original installation. The chilling evolution sounds right. "There's such a big problem, and it's getting ignored so heavily. The boxes weren't out there just to be pretty things, they had a purpose. Nobody even went out there, really. I'm going to keep it alive."

The vandalized art—in some version—will be up through September. What will happen to the devastated lives?