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Hiding and hunting for Monkeyshines is ‘a gift of love’ — by and for Tacoma

One of the glass works hidden in this year's Monkeyshines event.
Paula Wissel
/
KNKX
One of the glass works hidden in this year's Monkeyshines event.

Author's note: I was reluctant to venture outside in the middle of the night with the rain coming down in sheets, knowing I’d be traipsing through muddy playgrounds and parks in the dark. But I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun doing a story. The “secretive” mission I was following was all about spreading a little joy to others. This was back in February, before COVID-19 took over our lives, and before we all realized how much we would need some of that joy to get us through dark times. (This story originally aired Feb. 11, 2020.)

In Tacoma this time of year, under cover of darkness, people sneak around parks, playfields and public right-of-ways hiding glass works of art, called Monkeyshines, for anyone to find. Everyone involved in the project is sworn to secrecy. They say their mission is about spreading a little joy. I recently went along on a hiding expedition.

It’s still really dark outside when I walk up a flight of steps and enter a side door into a building in an undisclosed location in Tacoma. Despite the early hour and the bleak weather, the place is packed with an enthusiastic crowd. The main organizer is a woman who goes by the name Ms. Monkey.

“Last night it really overwhelmed me when I was thinking this is our 17th year of doing this,” she said to a resounding cheer.

This year, Ms. Monkey and other glass-blowing artists have made about 1,000 multicolored, hollow glass balls about the size of oranges and smaller, heavy glass medallions to hide around the city. Everyone volunteers their time. Some small grants help pay for materials.

As the art-distributing troops get ready to deploy, cardboard boxes filled with the glass works and other items to hide are stacked floor to ceiling in a corner of the room. Other items to be hidden include buttons that say "Reading is my superpower" and small blue bottles with messages in them, written by local art students.

But clearly the most sought-after Monkeyshines are the glass balls and medallions. This year, Ms. Monkey tells the room, the Museum of Glass has even donated some pieces.

She gives the Monkeyshines hiders some tips before they head out. She says to think about hiding the items low for "somebody who might be dejected and would be looking down," or hiding them high and "forcing someone to look up at their surroundings."

This photograph was posted to Facebook after someone found one of the many Monkeyshines hidden by a local mother and daughter, who invited KNKX's Paula Wissel to hide glass art around Tacoma.
This photograph was posted to Facebook after someone found one of the many Monkeyshines hidden by a local mother and daughter, who invited KNKX's Paula Wissel to hide glass art around Tacoma.

TACOMA'S PRIZED POSSESSIONS  

When this started 17 years ago, it was around the Lunar New Year and was the Year of the Monkey. That year, much of the glass work featured monkey images. Ever since, the treasures to be hidden are called Monkeyshines and, of course that’s how Ms. Monkey got her name.

A mom and her 12-year-old daughter pick up a box of items and agree to let me ride along, asking that they remain anonymous. We head to East Tacoma. This is their first time hiding Monkeyshines, though they’ve found some in the past.

"I think last year it was like a glass-blown flower, which was really cool," the girl said.

It’s raining really hard as we drive from spot to spot and, when we search for hiding spots, we can't see anything without our flashlights. Mother and daughter are clearly having fun as they sneak around. At one point, the daughter says it would be funny if we turned up on security cameras and people wondered what we were up to.

Monkeyshines have become prized possessions in Tacoma, which explains the secrecy that goes into this operation. People out hiding have been stalked by treasure hunters.

At one point, we notice someone standing by their car watching so we move on to another location.

ROGUES JOIN THE FUN

The annual project has become so popular that it's spawned copycats, people Ms. Monkey affectionately calls “rogues,” who make their own art and give clues on social media about their hiding places. She says that's a testament to the power of what Monkeyshines has become.

When it started, Ms. Monkey says, Tacoma was kind of depressed, and she and other artists thought this might help cheer people up.

Ms. Monkey said she's been approached by people who want to make it into something that "generates revenue" for the city by advertising hotel stays and such.

The idea appalls her. She said she wants it to remain something by and for Tacoma.

"It's a gift of love and a gift of hope,” she said. “It's about all of our ability to positively impact each other.”