Matt Driscoll

Harriet Tubman honored in latest Tacoma pop-up poster. Look for it soon

For Stan Shaw, the opportunity was too good to pass up.

The possibilities were too exciting. The potential was too enticing.

Shaw is a long-respected Tacoma illustrator. He’s also black. So when Tom Llewellyn and Lance Kagey reached out with an idea they thought he’d be perfect for, Shaw didn’t hesitate.

Kagey and Llewellyn — the creative forces behind Tacoma’s well-known Beautiful Angle guerrilla poster project — asked Shaw what he thought about creating a piece featuring Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.

They wanted him for the job, specifically, and Shaw was quickly all in.

The fact that the poster’s release will fall during Black History Month?

Even better.

“The chance to step in there and do something right, I think was sort of too compelling,” Shaw told The News Tribune this week.

Shaw said a decision last year to shelve and essentially mothball existing plans to put Tubman on the real U.S. $20 bill felt like a “direct slight” from the current administration.

It’s part of what motivated him.

“From there, a lot of other things sort of fell in place along the way,” the illustrator said of the project.

Shaw and I spoke Tuesday. That evening, he would join Llewellyn and Kagey in Beautiful Angle’s Tacoma basement studio and hand crank the first color run of Shaw’s creation.

So far, the creative trio is thrilled with the outcome.

“It is clearly going to be one of my favorite (posters) ever,” said Kagey, who with his longtime friend and former rock band-mate Llewellyn started Beautiful Angle 17 years ago.

“I’m so excited about it,” he said.

Kagey is a designer who long ago purchased the 1950s era cylinder press for $50 on Ebay that Beautiful Angle uses to this day. Llewellyn is a writer with a background in ad copy.

Together, the longtime Tacomans’ Beautiful Angel project has certainly developed a rhythm and a pattern over the years.

The posters they create show up once a month, or just about, throughout the city.

In the beginning, they’d hang mysteriously for days and weeks at a time, but over the years the duo has amassed a following, so now their work is often snatched by fans in hours or minutes.

Typically that’s fine by them, Kagey and Llewellyn said, but this month they’re employing a new approach — for a specific reason.

Llewellyn said the Tubman $20 bill poster will debut in just under two weeks, and this time — as they’ve increasingly sought to do in recent years — they’re going to hang them in areas of Tacoma they sometimes didn’t reach in earlier years.

That means they’ll focus on Hilltop, the Eastside and South End.

Even more, the Beautiful Angle crew is going to ask their most devoted fans to simply let the posters be, for a change, with designs on creating a more lasting gift to the communities where they appear.

Why?

The Tubman poster, Llewellyn said, is “for the city, but it’s definitely for the people of color in the city.”

“It broke my heart,” Llewellyn said of the Trump administration’s decision to delay the Tubman $20 bill.

At the same time, he quickly added he doesn’t view the forthcoming poster as a “negative protest poster.”

“We wanted to really be intentional about taking a positive route and saying this is a woman who demands to be celebrated and honored,” Llewellyn continued. “That’s really what this is.”

The idea spoke to Shaw, though this isn’t his first foray into the Beautiful Angle world.

Shaw worked with Kagey and Llewellyn in February 2017 when he designed “Be You” for Beautiful Angle.

It’s a powerful poster featuring a figure in a hooded sweatshirt, back turned, accompanied by a quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates.

“Be You” utilized a clear, sharp reference to Trayvon Martin in hopes of inspiring broader reflection and introspection.

According to Shaw, the poster played with the “visual expectation of who’s in the hoodie and who’s allowed to be in the hoodie.”

This time around, with Tubman and the $20 bill, Shaw again said he had plenty of room to be creative.

The early results are striking. Tubman’s figure rightfully looms large, while the intricacy of U.S. currency provided a backdrop for subtle messaging and thought-provoking design.

“U.S. currency might not be the best looking in the world,” Shaw said, but it’s full of “little details” that allowed his imagination to take off.

“I could pack this poster with meaning,” Shaw said. “It was just too hard to resist.”

Like Llewellyn and Kagey, Shaw doesn’t see the poster as some big, grand declaration.

Rather, he sees it as art, first and foremost, and at its root, a “positive statement.”

Beyond that, Shaw said he “hadn’t really thought” about the reaction the poster might get.

He’s unconcerned by potential blow back, he assured.

At the very least, Shaw said he hopes it will make people “ think about their involvement in the government, and how that can affect them.”

“I thought the plans to make a Harriet Tubman $20 were great, and I thought the reason we were going to do it were great,” Shaw said. “The fact that we’re not going to do it, I think is very sad.

“I don’t think rolling over and giving up is the way to do it.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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