The Seattle Gum Wall: A Sticky Situation
When you visit a city enough times, you learn some fantastic things about it. One of my best friends lives in Seattle, and it is an easy plane ride from Los Angeles. So, I have become a frequent visitor to the rainy city up north. As a 10-years-running SoCal resident, I can’t quite get used to all the gray skies and moisture, but Seattle still boasts many charms, including the famous underground (click here to read all about that).
On my latest visit this past April, my friend took me to another Seattle attraction that is um… well… not like something you would find in other cities. In a word, it’s gross. However, I mean that in the most amazing way possible.
Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to the Seattle Gum Wall! Which, as you can see, is actually an entire alley way covered, from top to bottom, in sticky, germ-infested, multi-colored, disgusting wads of already chewed gum that smell like a stale candy store. From the minute I smelled it coming, I could tell I was in for a treat. And trust me, you definitely smell it before you see it. My friend and Seattle resident who took me there, Erin, warned me that I would – “that wall is two senses in direct contrast to each other,” she said. “Everything smells amazing, but I don’t want to touch anything!”
As we turned the corner, and my eyes caught up with my nose, I saw exactly what she meant. The place was an unending rainbow-bright wall of gum. It made my jaws hurt to look at it. I had an immediate instinct to shrivel inside myself, as if the gum would somehow leap off the walls and land in my hair.
Erin got a charge out of it, and she recalled her own first visit to the wall. “We definitely watched our steps to avoid any gum that had fallen down,” she said. Wise words, my friend. Because I ask you, is there anything worse than gum on your shoe? No, there isn’t. Except maybe gum in your hair, which luckily, no one in the party experienced… this time.
My visit to the gummy attraction left me with one hell of a question. Well, it left me with a lot of questions actually, but the biggest one was how in the world did this all start? You’ll be surprised to know that the explanation is pretty simple. Sometime in 1993, while waiting for shows to start at the adjacent movie theater, people smeared gum on the wall to pass the time. The tradition really stuck, you might say (we all love puns). Soon, Seattle-ites and their tourist counterparts came from all over to add their personal touch to the display.
The theater tried to clean the wall at first. At least twice, they got out their scrapers and did away with all the gum wads. However, they were just one theater against thousands of gum-chewers, and they eventually had to give up the fight. Months went by. Then years. The city abandoned all cleaning efforts once and for all in 1999, because if you can’t beat them, join them. The nearby Pike Place Market stopped fighting city hall, and they deemed the wall an official tourist attraction.
By then, a silly fad had become a sensation. Some spots in the alley had gum patches over two inches thick. Wedding parties began taking pictures there. In 2009, the wall earned a major distinction when it got a place on the top five germiest places in the world. It actually came in second, right behind the kiss-coated Blarney stone in Ireland. Maybe that’s what inspired Jennifer Anniston and her movie crew to film a scene from “Love Happens” there, also in 2009.
So much gum plastered the Seattle Gum Wall that the sugar began eroding the bricks beneath it (see? Sugar is bad for you!) In November of 2015, over a decade after the gum craze began, the Pike Place Market and Development Authority decided it was finally time to do something about it. Amid the cries and protests of people who loved their germy wall, the city went to work on twenty years’ worth of gum wads.
It was no small effort, and I can’t even imagine the equipment brought in for the job. It took a crew of cleaners over 130 hours to chisel and steam away about 2,350 pounds of gum. POUNDS, people. That is over one ton of already chewed gum! That’s about the size of two full grown male grizzly bears made entirely of gum. If you’re not grossed out by now, go conquer the world, because you are invincible.
It was a truly Herculean enterprise by the city of Seattle, and that very unfortunate cleaning crew, but in the end, it was a totally wasted effort. Because you can’t fight the people when they love gum that much. Seattle citizens and their friends stormed the familiar alley, and they had it re-coated in gum within days of the cleaning.
As for me, I hesitated to go when Erin told me about this peculiar attraction. Gum makes me anxious even in single-piece form. It’s such a choking hazard, for one. Also, what are you supposed to do when it runs out of taste? Which is precisely thirty seconds after you start chewing it? I guess you could put it on a wall, but we don’t all live in Seattle. Besides, what if it pulls my fillings out? What if it sticks to the roof of my mouth? Don’t get me started on my reaction when someone next to me pops their gum, blows bubbles, or strings it through their fingers.
Yes, I’ve always considered gum an enemy, so I wasn’t keen on traipsing through a whole alley of it. So, it surprised me when I found myself thoroughly enjoying this insane attraction. For one, you can’t deny it made for some very interesting photos. More people swarmed the place than I expected too, and their surprised faces, playful laughter, and pointing fingers were infectious. So much so that by some sheer act of bravery, my husband and I both left our own personal mark on the wall. I don’t know why we did it. I guess Erin probably summed it up best. “We couldn’t be Seattle tourists and not place our gum on the gum wall.” Don’t worry – we all washed our hands afterward. Multiple times.
So, who knew? Apparently, there is an odd type of beauty in tons of gum stuck to a brick wall. To me, the concept felt kind of heart-warming, even if a little gross. Because that’s the wonderful thing about humans. We have so much beauty inside us that we gravitate towards it, no matter what form it takes. We can even make art out of spit wads of gum. And that, my friends, is something to see.
Seattle Gum Wall Visit
Trip Savvy – “8 Weird Facts about the Seattle Gum Wall”
Atlas Obscura – “Gum Wall – Seattle, Washington”
And my Good Friend, Erin! Thanks for the adventure!
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more from Washington, click here.