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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 21, 2020

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

It's Lunar New Year and that means one thing in my hometown of Tacoma. A special season is upon us, one swirled in glimmers of hope, gleaming glass and love for our seaside town. And did I mention mystery? It’s Monkeyshines season.

The tradition began in 2004, the Year of the Monkey, when Monkeyshine Project 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 (Jan. 25 in 2020), the group hides a growing stash of treasures — glass orbs, pottery and small pieces of art — in secret locations throughout the city, numbering some 2,000 treasures in 2015! Thousands of community members comb through parks and public spaces in search of the hidden items.

Each new year, which avid hunters look forward to with great anticipation, brings the question: Will Monkeyshines continue?

Monkeyshines anticipation

The answer is shrouded in mystery every year, but it seems the treasures are out for finding in 2020: both traditional glass orbs and all sorts of rogue treasures put out for the finding. 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), 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 Monkeshines 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 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.”

Clark got another friend of ours, Erin Watlington, hooked on searching too. “This is absolutely my favorite time of year,” Watlington says. “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 light, quite literally, on the beauty of Tacoma, Watlington 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 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,” says 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 Monkeyshine, 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 (Jan. 25 this year), but treasure can be 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 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, 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 Monkeyshines rule: Take only one treasure per person per year. Lucky enough to find more than one? Pay the fun forward by re-hiding it for another searcher to find.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2016 and updated for 2020.

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