Living history: Seattle’s disgusting wall of gum

Round of applause for my brave and gifted college roommate Emily Eagle, a freelance creative who lives in Seattle. She wants to tell you about gum – and why things that are disgusting also fascinate us.  Make sure you listen to her audio piece at the end of the postl – it is crazy good.

GUM. No, I don’t have a pack of gum in my purse. Please don’t ask. I think gum is disgusting—it’s like chewing on a piece of plastic. Yuck.

Wait — who are you and why are you talking about gum? I’m Emily, the Night Train’s college roommate, and I’m about to tell you about some “living” history in my city — Seattle.

Some of you might be alongside in me in thinking that stuff that we believe to be disgusting is also kind of fascinating. That’s exactly the sentiment at Seattle’s Gum Wall, supposedly one of the germ-iest attractions in the world (after the Blarney Stone).

This wall, outside the Market Theater in Post Alley, a side street off of the ever-popular Pike Place Market, is COVERED in thousands of pieces of gum — and billions, probably trillions of bacteria (yes, that’s what I mean by “living” history).

Many tourists — and locals — come down here simply because of that bizarre magnetic pull of something both disgusting and fascinating. Others come to build sculptures out of chewed gum — I even saw a Mona Lisa made of gum during one visit. On another day (when the Mona Lisa had been obscured by many newer pieces of gum), I spent a few hours standing by the wall with my recorder asking people about the wall and why they were there for an art project (link at the end of the post).

It is also a prime people-watching spot: I saw a father distribute chewing gum to three elementary school age kids, and watched as they dutifully chewed, and then each of them took their gum and put it on the wall while screaming, “Ew, ew, ew!” And then I saw their mother pull out the hand sanitizer. Defiled and sanctified in the matter of five minutes.

Why do we do stuff like this? I think we like the idea of pushing ourselves to the edge of what is considered “clean” or civilized, and then running back to comfort. Of course, people stick their gum on things that aren’t considered art all the time (hello disgusting 8th grade math desk), but then it’s about breaking the rules and being lazy. Here, though, it’s about breaking the rules along with thousands of other people — even while it’s now sanctioned by the Pike Place Market Association.

It doesn’t take much effort though. There’s an old school gumball machine in the doorway to the theater, and so with a quarter and a working jaw you too can participate. At the end of my day of recording, I gave in. I bought a big round piece of gum, chewed it (yuck!) and put it on the brick near the entryway. It was gross, but that means it was also kind of awesome.

I turned my recordings at the Gum Wall into a riff on a man on the street piece and a horror story. I made it for the Third Coast Audio Festival’s 2010 Short Docs Challenge. You can hear the piece on Broadcastr, a really neat site and iPhone app where you can upload and listen to audio and tag it to Google Maps.

#emily eagle#night train and friends#pike place market#seattle gum wall