In 1983, Martin Bell and his wife, acclaimed photographer Mary Ellen Mark, set out to document the lives of young people living on the streets of Seattle, and he says he’ll never forget meeting one in particular: 14-year old Erin Blackwell, who went by Tiny.
“She was beautiful and engaging and impossible to forget,” Bell said.
Tiny would go on to become the unofficial star of "Streetwise", the heartbreaking, intimate and, at times, exuberant 1984 documentary.
At that time, Tiny wanted the kind of things all kids want.
“I wanna be really rich and live on a farm with a bunch of horses, which is my main best animal, and three yachts or more, and diamonds and jewels and all that stuff,” she said in the Oscar-nominated film.
But in other ways her life was very, very different. Tiny was also a drug addict and a prostitute.
“I think it’s very strange that older men like little girls,” she told the filmmakers. “’Cause they perverts is what they is. I mean I like the money but I don’t like them.”
A Streetwise Subculture
Bell says filming this hidden world felt very odd.
“I remember at one point Mary Ellen getting a jaywalking ticket and right behind where Mary Ellen was getting the ticket there were kids getting into cars, you know, turning tricks. It was like, strange and surreal,” he said.
Bell says he and Mary Ellen Mark chose Seattle because it was supposedly the most livable city in the country. And yet, there was this whole culture of street kids downtown.
“These are kids that have been disposed of really, and there they were; they arrived on the street,” Bell said. “There were all these other kids, you know there was Rat and Lulu, Patty, Munchkin, Patrice, Shadow, Dewayne, Justin.”
The film shows things most viewers never get to see otherwise. You see a young girl agonizing over which pimp to join up with, boys roller skating through the halls of the abandoned hotel where they live; Tiny in a hospital gown on her doctor’s exam table, worried about getting pregnant by a john even while explaining she had gotten her first period just months earlier.
Catching Up With Tiny
Through the filming Martin and Mary Ellen bonded strongly with Tiny. And when it was all over they couldn’t bear the idea of just leaving her to the streets, so they made her an offer.
“We offered Tiny to come back to New York and live with us,” he says. ”But there was one condition, and the condition was she would have to go to school. And she said ‘I ain’t going to school.’ And that was it.”
Tiny chose to stay on the street. Still, Martin and Mary Ellen kept in touch. They gave her help, and also continued documenting her life. They were there for the birth of her first child when she was 16, and then again for the births of nearly every one of her nine children since.
A few years ago, before Mary Ellen Mark died, they started working on several follow-up projects, including a new book of Mark’s photos of Tiny and a new documentary, called "Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell", to be released in 2016.
For its episode on the theme “Underground”, KPLU Sound Effect host Gabriel Spitzer caught up with Tiny. She lives in Kirkland now – not on a farm with horses and yachts. Her life has not been easy, but her warmth and humanity still shine through.