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Monkeyshines: Tacoma's Beloved Guerilla-art Lunar New Year Tradition

Grab your flashlights and your kids. Monkeyshines' citywide scavenger hunt is on for Year of the Monkey

Published on: January 23, 2017

And the writer found one on her first day out! Malia Jacobson's monkey ball, found by her 2-year-old at Sunset Terrace Park
And the writer found one on her first day out! Malia Jacobson's monkey ball, found by her 2-year-old at Sunset Terrace Park

There's just one big game left in football season, and the Seahawks aren't in it. So as that season ends (blessed or bitter, depending on your perspective), in my hometown of Tacoma, another season is kicking off, one swirled in glimmers of hope, gleaming glass and love for our seaside town. It’s Monkeyshine season.

The tradition began in 2004, the Year of the Monkey, when Monkeyshine Project founder “Ms. Monkey” decided to sow beauty in Tacoma. Her small band of organizers hid glass orbs around Tacoma (called monkey balls) for residents to find and keep. Every year since, on or around Lunar New Year, the group hides a growing stash of treasures — glass orbs, pottery, and small pieces of art — in secret locations throughout the city, numbering 2,000 treasures in 2015. One contributor, known as Marbleman, tucks smooth, swirly glass marbles in hiding spots for seekers to find.

That mystery is solved: The Exit 133 blog, who interviewed Ms. Monkey in December 2015, reports that it's on for another 12 years. Now it's up to us to unearth the treasures — and the sense of community and anticipation that Monkeyshines brings. Each year, the exact start date of Monkeyshines is unknown (though it's always around the Lunar New Year). In 2016, since Monkeyshines had gone through a full 12-year lunar cycle (the original commitment of Ms. Monkey and her cohorts), there was an even greater mystery: Would Monkeyshines continue? 

Monkeyshines orb
Monkeyshines orb find. Photo credit: Erin Watlington

My friend Lyn Clark shares her Monkeshines journey: Her son found their family’s first Monkeyshine in 2013 by accident, crawling through some bushes at Tacoma’s Puget Park. She went online to research the find, and a Monkeyshine maniac was born. She’s taken her two kids to look every year since. They’ve frequently been lucky, though they abide by the Monkeyshine community’s strict “Take only one per searcher, per year” rule.

There’s nothing else like a Monkeyshine search, Lyn says. “There’s a sense of community, excitement, peace, and joy when you go out before the sun comes up and see groups of people with flashlights.”

Lyn got another friend of ours, Erin Watlington, hooked on searching too. “This is absolutely my favorite time of year,” Erin says. “I’m giddy with excitement.”

“[Monkeyshines] exposes our growing guerrilla art scene and love Tacomans have for their city.”

Erin found her first orb in 2014, on an early-morning search with her older son, Nolan, a classmate of my daughter’s. “Our flashlights scanned all roots and branches and after looking around several trees, our light was reflected way up high in a tree! I tried to stay cool and not build too much excitement but inside I was like a kid on Christmas morning.”

The tradition shines light, quite literally, on the beauty of Tacoma, Erin says. “I’ve experienced Tacoma in a new way. We explored new places and noticed the beauty of places and things we usually just pass by.”

The annual search has also become something of a community cleanup; many searchers particulate in a citywide cleanup after the Monkeyshine hunt ends. Some take along trash bags to pick up litter as they look for treasure. Many also contribute to the search by bringing their own treasures to hide.

Pitching in makes sense; after all, the Monkeyshine tradition is steeped in pride of place, notes Erin. “It exposes our growing guerrilla art scene and love Tacomans have for their city.”

Mostly, Monkeyshiners point out, it’s about the journey, not the find. Hunting for glittering bits of glass is the means, but spending cherished time with your friends and family is the end. Another friend and former neighbor Anna Petersen found treasure last year on her regular morning run. She takes her two school-age kids searching too; though they’ve come up empty-handed, the kids loved last year’s hunt enough to write a thank-you note to Ms. Monkey.

“Go out and have fun,” says Anna. “It’s not about finding bling, it’s about being a part of the greater Tacoma community.”

If it sounds like I’m the only one of my friends without a Monkeyshine, despite searching … yeah, it feels that way too. I’ll be out looking again this year, bundled up, with kids in tow. If I don’t find treasure, though, that’s OK by me. I’ll be enjoying my artsy, beautiful, mysterious city, my greatest treasures snug by my side.

If you’d like to join the Monkeyshine hunt, here are some tips:

  • The hunt centers around Lunar New Year (Saturday, Jan. 28), but treasure is often found a couple of days before and up to a week or so after the actual day. Some treasures elude seekers and remain hidden much longer.
  • Check Tacoma blog for Monkeyshine information. Read comment threads for hints on where to search.
  • Monkeyshines, marbles and other treasures are found at all times of day, but early-morning searches tend to be most successful.
  • Monkeyshines are hidden in public spaces like parks and waterways. So don’t trespass; they’re not on private property, anyway.
  • Look up! Monkeyshines may lurk off the ground in trees, sculpture or signposts.
  • Though finds have been reported in neighboring communities like Steilacoom, Lakewood, and University Place, most Monkeyshines are found in Tacoma.
  • Remind kids that it’s about the hunt, and that they may not find anything. Bringing something to hide along the way can head off disappointment.
  • Remember the Monkeyshine rule: Take only one treasure per person. Lucky enough to find more than one? Pay the fun forward by re-hiding it for another searcher to find.

If you'd like to donate to this year's Monkeyshines search, check this Exit 133 blog post for tips. 

This article was originally published on Feb. 8, 2016, and updated on Jan. 23, 2017.

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