Social media has turned this sticky alley into one of Seattle’s top tourist destinations
By CRAIG SAILOR | The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.) | Published: April 3, 2018
SEATTLE — It’s the photo every tourist visiting Seattle has to have: the gum-wall selfie.
The quirky oddity at Pike Place Market, for years just 15 feet wide, has turned into a canyon of chewing gum.
Today, the gum wall is eight feet tall and over 50 feet long — on both sides of the alley.
On a sunny weekend day, hundreds of people can be found crammed into Post Alley — chewing gum, blowing bubbles and documenting the entire experience.
The odor of gum hangs heavy in the air.
Mika Liao was in the alley with three of her co-workers on a recent weekday. The four Taiwan residents were visiting Seattle on business.
They had seen the gum wall on Instagram before leaving Asia. It was on their must-see list.
“It’s the top three: Pike Place market, first Starbucks, gum wall,” Liao said.
Space Needle? Passe.
The women were all holding Starbucks coffees as they stuffed gum in their mouths.
Asked what they thought of the gum wall, the women grimaced in unison. “Interesting,” Liao said finally between chews.
They were careful not to brush up against the multicolored wads of gum.
“Everyone’s DNA is here,” Liao said. “Everywhere.” She paused for a moment.
“I’m going to leave my DNA here.” The women giggled.
The gum wall is perhaps Seattle’s purest, most interactive public art project. It began in the early 1990s outside the entrance to the Market Theater. Unexpected Productions had just rented the space.
“Our audience started that gum wall,” said Mary Bacarella, who volunteered to work the company’s books in the early 1990s.
“Our audience would line up on that wall, and I don’t know who started it, but they put a penny and a piece of gum on the wall,” Bacarella said.
The practice soon caught on and the gum wall was born.
The market asked the theater to clean the wall. They did.
“It immediately started up again,” she said.
After the third round of cleaning and gumming, the market management gave up and let the gum wall stay.
Today, Bacarella is the management.
She’s just stepped in to the position of executive director of the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority, which oversees some 240 shops plus restaurants, food vendors and apartments.
Bacarella is decidedly pro-gum.
“You walk down the alley and you think a street fair is going on,” Bacarella said. “You see brides getting their picture taken in front of it, somebody doing a photo shoot.”
It’s not just gum stuck to the walls. Coins, spoons, notes and other mementos are glued to the walls.
“C+M” is spelled out on the wall in gum. Nearby, “W+C” had declared their love as well.
Audrey Tewnion was standing in the alley with her 13-year-old daughter, Amy Cuthbertson, earlier this month. Both were busy chewing gun.
They had been at it for 10 minutes to achieve the perfect bubble-blowing consistency.
The pair were making their second visit to Seattle from Vernon, British Columbia. But it was their first time to the gum alley.
“It’s one of the things that you aways hear about, that you have to see,” Tewnion. “It’s on Trip Advisor.”
“I’ve seen lots of picture of it on Instagram,” Amy added. The #gumwall hashtag has more than 190,000 posts on Instagram.
The Canadian mom and daughter would soon add theirs.
But not everyone in the alley is a fan.
Doug March has worked at the Alibi Room for a decade, the last five as a bartender. The bar and restaurant’s entrance is in the middle of the alley.
He thinks the gum wall took off about five years ago, after a New York magazine wrote a story about it.
“I find it disgusting,” March said, taking a smoke break. Around him, dozens of people were chewing, blowing bubbles and posing.
“At least five times a day I have to tell the story how it started,” March said.
When the wall suddenly exploded in popularity, the quest to keep gum from migrating to the other side of the alley where the Alibi Room is was futile, he said.
“They stuck signs up that said, ‘No gum,’ ” March said. “Those got covered up in gum.”
The Alibi Room does draw a line, though.
Wide brass panels trim the entrance to the bar. It’s completely gum-free. How often does it get cleaned?
“Every day,” March said in a resigned tone.
The final insult to injury? They find wads of gum stuck underneath chairs.
“There’s a whole alley dedicated to gum out there, and you still got to stick it under the chair,” he said.
The wall was cleaned in 2015. Market management was concerned about the potential damage to the historic brick walls, said spokeswoman Emily Crawford.
A literal ton of gum was cleaned off the wall — 2350 pounds.
“We filled 94 five-gallon buckets,” Crawford said. “It was layered seven inches thick.”
Crawford said the gum wall isn’t marketed or advertised, but it’s in all the guidebooks and tourist websites. Tours come through the alley daily.
“It’s on all the lists of things to do,” Crawford said. “Over the years we’ve seen marriage proposals, prom date asks.”
The wall was cleaned again in November. It’s now going to be an annual task. The gum just keeps coming at an ever-increasing rate. In only five months, nearly every square inch had been covered.
“It’s so colorful,” exclaimed Mari Berber of Merced, Calif. She was visiting the gum wall with boyfriend Julian Pulido.
It was the couple’s first trip to Seattle. Like others, they had heard about the wall on social media.
“I want to go there, I want to go the Space Needle and I want to go the market,” Berber said. “That’s about it.”
The couple were shooting video and still images and posting to Facebook and Instagram.
Nearby, the four women from Taiwan were busy blowing bubbles and posing for photos in various groupings. They had been at it for 40 minutes and showed no signs of stopping.