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Monkeyshines: Tacoma's Beloved and Mysterious Lunar New Year Art Tradition

Grab your flashlights and your kids! The hunt for Monkeyshines is on

Malia Jacobson

Published on: January 27, 2021

Monkeyshines find by the author's 2-year-old, in Sunset Terrace Park (a few years ago). Credit: Malia Jacobson

It's nearly Lunar New Year and that means one question is swirling around my hometown of Tacoma, Washington. It's an annual mystery wrapped in glimmers of hope, gleaming glass and love for our seaside town: Will the Monkeyshines hunt happen?

The Monkeyshines tradition began in 2004, the Year of the Monkey, when founder “Ms. Monkey” decided to sow beauty around Tacoma. Her small band of organizers hid glass orbs (called monkey balls) around town for residents to find and keep. Every year since, on or around Lunar New Year (Feb. 12 in 2021), the group has hidden a growing stash of items — glass orbs, pottery and small pieces of art — in secret locations throughout the city, numbering some 2,000 treasures some years!

Monkeyshines anticipation

Avid Monkeyshines hunters look forward to Lunar New Year with great anticipation, hopeful the tradition will continue. So in 2021... should we start combing through parks and public spaces in search of coveted treasures?

The answer, thankfully, is yes. It's the Year of the Ox and the monkey crew is busy prepping themed glass orbs to hide. Now it's up to us to unearth the treasures — and the sense of community that Monkeyshines brings. (We can also support this community art effort: There's a new Monkeyshines fundraising page seeking donations to keep this beloved tradition afloat.)

When to hunt

Each year, the exact start date of Monkeyshines is unknown (though it's always around the Lunar New Year), and information tends toward word-of-mouth or at least digital word-of-mouth. See below for where to look for info and where to actually hunt.

Monkeyshines find! Credit: Erin Watlington

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

There’s nothing else like a Monkeyshines search, Clark said. “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.”

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

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

Watlington found her first orb in 2014, on an early-morning search with her son Nolan, who is 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 a light, quite literally, on the beauty of Tacoma, Watlington said. “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 participate in a citywide cleanup after the Monkeyshines 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 Monkeyshines tradition is steeped in pride of place, notes Watlington. “It exposes our growing guerrilla art scene and the love Tacomans have for their city.”

The journey

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 a few years ago 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,” said Petersen. “It’s not about finding bling, it’s about being a part of the greater Tacoma community.”

It's true that I’m the only one of my friends without a monkey ball, despite searching, but I’ll be out looking again this year, bundled up, with my kids in tow. If I don’t find treasure, though, that’s okay by me. I’ll be enjoying my artsy, beautiful, mysterious city, with my greatest treasures snug by my side.

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

  • The hunt centers around Lunar New Year (Feb. 12 this year), but treasure can be found a few days before and up to a week after the actual day — give or take. Some treasures elude seekers and remain hidden much longer.
  • Check the Monkeyshines Facebook page for Monkeyshines 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, sculptures 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 Monkeyshines rule: Take only one treasure per person per year. Lucky enough to find more than one? Snap a photo, then pay it forward by re-hiding it for another searcher to find.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2016 and updated for 2021.

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