When a city is known for something … why not promote the living bejeezus out of it and make it your town’s claim to fame? Kansas City, for instance, is the city of fountains. Boise is the city of trees. Well, in the smallish city of Toppenish, Washington – they are known for being colorfully creative as America’s City of Murals.
The city’s motto – “Where the West still lives” – is the theme of the 80+ murals scattered about the city. If there’s a flat surface in town, you can be assured there’s a historical mural on it – or probably a plan to paint something upon said flat surface. “There was a vision to tie in our roots with the Western community,” said Paul Newman, Executive Director of Toppenish’s Chamber of Commerce. “If you have an appreciation for Americana and Western flair, you won’t be disappointed.”
The Toppenish Murals began in 1989 as a way to celebrate Washington’s centennial celebration. Ideas about murals with a “Western-type façade” were bandied about. That year the town hosted their first annual Mural-In-A-Day – where a masterful local artist was chosen to paint and unveil a new mural in 24 hours. It’s a tradition that continues the first Saturday each June. The Toppenish Mural Society helps run the show by also holding fundraisers to sponsor regional or seasonal artists throughout the year.
Each mural has the same inspired motif – a time period between the late 1800’s and mid 1900’s when Toppenish came into its own as a well-known railroad stop. The artists run the gamut of creativity in their larger-than-life paintings – many which adorn nearly an entire block. Even the local fire department wanted in on the action ... using the garage doors to their firehouse as a blank palette.
Several of the murals feature colorful, slice-of-life fare of days gone by. Others are a bit more grandiose and action-packed – spotlighting a time when cowboys ruled the roost and the West was still relatively wild. All are homespun and remind tourists of simpler, less hectic times when the world thrived on bonnets, butter churns, county fairs and newly introduced locomotives.
When asked if Newman had a favorite, he was demur. “It’s all based on personal preference,” he said. “I’ll guarantee you’ll find a number of them that you like.” According to Newman, over 10,000 visitors make a point to visit Toppenish each year to see the town’s latest and greatest artistic endeavors. “Another 10,000 just stumble upon it,” he mentioned.
The town takes immense pride knowing they have something that shows off their heritage and has put them on the Pacific Northwest’s proverbial map. Even better? They even have a sense of humor about it. The town’s unofficial motto, you ask? “Toppenish – come watch paint dry.”