Editor’s Note: This story originally ran as part of KPLU’s new show, “Sound Effect,” which airs on Saturdays at 10 a.m.
Next time you’re walking on a Seattle sidewalk on a rainy day, look down. You just might see a message reveal itself.
At least that’s the intention of Peregrine Church, the 21-year-old magician who has created the unusual art. His stenciled messages are only visible when it’s wet outside.
Creating moments to jar people out of their routines
I meet the man behind the messages one rainy afternoon in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
We sit in a shop just a few feet from a sidewalk message that reads, “PROUD TO BE RAINY.” When it’s dry, Church says, the message will disappear. That appeals to the magician in Church, who heads the Society of Collegiate Magicians at the University of Washington though he’s no longer a student there.
Church says his rain messages are part a broader goal to make other people’s lives a little brighter. He’s someone who carries around a red clown nose. When the mood strikes, he says, he just puts it on as he’s walking downtown or riding the bus.
“I just like making people smile, and so I’m happy to sacrifice looking normal for the sake of giving people something to smile about.” Church says.
Church likes to create novel experiences that will jar people out of their routines. But one problem seems to be getting people to even notice.
Through the window of the shop we’re sitting in, we have a perfect view of Church’s “PROUD TO BE RAINY” message, but few people glance down.
“A lot of people are on their phones or in a hurry to cross the street,” he says.
Using waterproof spray to hide messages in plain sight
Church got the idea to create his rain-activated messages from a viral video promoting “super hydrophobic coatings” that can be sprayed on anything.
“And the video showed these dramatic shots of like chocolate syrup running off these perfectly white shoes or red wine spilling off things, and all the things were perfectly untouched,” Church says.
It got him thinking about using the waterproof spray to write or draw something on a sidewalk. The part of the concrete he sprays stays dry and light-colored in the rain, but everything else gets darker as it gets wet. The contrast creates the image.
‘Nice to have something counteract’ the rain
In the past year, Church has stenciled giant raindrops and the words “STAY DRY OUT THERE” near a bus stop in West Seattle. You can see the phrase “WORRY is a MISUSE of the IMAGINATION” on a sidewalk in Belltown. Another says, “ATTENTION: GROUND IS NOW LAVA.” Dry spots are depicted nearby so you can jump to safety.
Church describes another one in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood: “There’s like a lilypad pond with all these lilypads and frogs hopping between them.”
The artist himself doesn’t actually like the rain. But, he says, if you’re trying to cheer people up, you can’t very well do it when they’re already happy.
“On a sunny day, I’ll smile no matter what. Everything just seems brighter and better, and most people in Seattle are like that,” Church says. But when it’s rainy and people are somber, he says it’s “nice to have something to counteract that.”
Messages only for smiles; no commercial ads
Church says he’ll never use his rain works for commercial purposes, no stenciling “happy hour 4 to 6” on the sidewalk, for example. He says we’re already bombarded with too many of those sorts of messages.
He makes a point of telling me the sprays he use are non-toxic, biodegradable and won’t make the sidewalk slippery.
Still, a young guy with a spray can out at night can attract suspicion. One time, he had his stencil on the sidewalk, spray in hand and was just about to begin when he heard a voice from behind him.
“I heard someone say, ‘You are not going to do that.’ And I turned around and there was this woman with this appalled look on her face,” Church says.
Once he convinced her that he wasn’t a graffiti tagger, that he was spraying on a work of art that would only be seen when it rained, her demeanor changed.
“She’s like, ‘Oh, that’s really cool. Carry on.”’ Church says.
But is it legal?
But Church hasn’t gotten official permission to lay down his stencils. I wonder if it’s legal, and my question takes me to the sidewalk division of the Seattle’s Department of Transportation. There, I meet Jennifer Wieland, who manages Seattle’s public space program.
I’m surprised by her answer.
She tells me the artwork is legal as long as it’s temporary, which it is since the messages come and go, and isn’t commercial. What’s more, she embraces the idea. She sees it as part of the city’s efforts to make neighborhoods more vibrant.
“We are really doing things that entice people to enjoy our public spaces differently, so this is very much in line with the kind of things we’d like to see,” Wieland says.
Seeing what’s beneath our feet
The challenge for Church remains getting people to see what he has created for them. He jokes about stenciling a message that says, “Thanks for being observant.”
Finally, just before I’m about to leave, he’s rewarded. A woman sees his “PROUND TO BE RAINY” message.
“Yeah, she looked at it. Cool,” he says.
Maybe, he speculates, it made her day.