Ever stopped by McKay’s Taphouse and admired the mural coating the outside walls? Maybe you’ve seen that older Volvo riding around town with its Obama-rainbow artwork? Or you’ve strolled through the animal-painted tunnel in Larrabee State Park on your way to the beach?
Artist Shawn Cass (known by his nickname “Pickles” and tag “Ruckas”) is the man behind this spray-painted Whatcom County.
Born in Arkansas, Shawn moved to Bellingham in 1999 fresh out of high school. Shawn’s older brother and his friends encouraged the move to the northwest for the landscape and opportunities within the electronic music scene – they were aspiring DJs.
Shawn was also interested in graffiti art and breakdancing, using his school electives to take any art classes he could. “Thanks to my high school art teacher Mr. Remmers, some other graffiti artists and eventually me were given walls to paint in our school,” Shawn said. “He showed us that graffiti wasn’t something that had to be done illegally, but that it could be valued and appreciated.”
Shawn added that being near Seattle and Canada seemed perfect for taking their passions to a more professional level. “Passing through Bellingham, though, I realized I wanted to make this place my home,” Shawn said.
Shawn described how Whatcom County and the Northwest reminds him of the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas, except with surrounding snowcaps, islands and salt water. “To an Arkansas boy, it’s paradise,” Shawn said.
Since settling in Bellingham, Shawn graduated from Western Washington University’s Huxley College in 2008 with a degree in Environmental Science and a minor in Sustainable Design and Planning. “In the years I spent working and going to college, I always did a little bit of art and a little bit of DJing, but it took a backseat to getting my degree and making a living,” Shawn said. “Once I graduated college, I focused 100 percent on art and music.”
Shawn’s passion for graffiti art has spread throughout Whatcom County. His most recent work includes “Bellingham Community” and “Bird Alley.” “Bellingham Community” is a mural on a low, lengthy wall right where Railroad Ave and East Laurel St. merge. The City of Bellingham hired Shawn through his new business PKLZ Inc. to paint the wall in hopes of preventing further graffiti tagging and vandalizing. In the finished mural, dogs, people and children are seen walking around Bellingham – a beautiful, lively scene of flowers, mountains, a sunset, a rabbit, a bumblebee and butterflies. Shawn said some of the dogs and people are friends of his who live in the community.
“Bird Alley” is a larger project, located behind El Capitan’s Gourmet Sausages and Pretzels, Hohl Feed and Seed and Clark Feed and Seed. Funded solely on donations, Shawn has been working on this large-scale mural for more than a year.
With 80 birds in it right now – a collection of pigeons, parrots, an ostrich, owls, doves, a peacock, a penguin and tons of others – Shawn plans to boost the count up to at least 100. The project started out for the pigeons, since many live atop the old grain mill right there in the alley. They hang around the area, waiting for their lunchtime seeds from who Shawn says is the “mama of the birds,” a woman who works nearby and dedicates some of her time to the flock. Shawn hopes maybe a bird bath could eventually be installed.
“I appreciate nature and Whatcom County,” Shawn said with a smile. “So I try to put something in my work for everyone.”
And that he does.
When you walk through “Bird Alley,” you can see how Shawn illustrates different themes and style techniques throughout the entire artwork. The mural itself begins in a nature theme, blends into rural and then ends with more of a city-vibe. Similar to the “Bellingham Community” mural where dogs and people of the community are represented, Shawn painted a birdhouse in “Bird Alley” modeled from his friend’s house in town. Style-wise, on corners where bits of the building walls meet, Shawn likes to play around with perspective and paint in a way where it looks like there is no corner at all.
“Some people appreciate what they see and understand and some people appreciate the imagination of it,” Shawn said. “So I try to have both.”
During my interview with Shawn in “Bird Alley,” people came walking through to check out the art. Open to ideas and collaborations, Shawn asked a few individuals right then what they would like to see added on the wall. Well-known, Seattle Muralist Henry even has a bird on the wall thanks to Shawn.
“Shawn is so known for this ‘Bird Alley’ that anyone and everyone who knows him will walk through just to say hi,” Karen Jans, Shawn’s girlfriend, said. “They figure Pickles will be down here and he’s more than happy to spend the time hanging out.”
Shawn has thought about moving and branching out, however, he said it’s tough for him to leave Whatcom County. “I love this place and will continue to rep it in my artwork,” Shawn said. “I’ve already done bald eagles flying over Mount Baker at least four times and it’s not played out. There will be one in Bird Alley.”