The front room in MS PAM features an immense Julia lunchbox. 

Image: Stefan Milne

The mural has a door in it. When Tariqa Waters opens this door, it seems more like a portal: Beyond lies a dull gray hallway in an old Pioneer Square building, columns of tired metal mail slots. This is what most of the real world looks like, I realize, but by this point I have been inside Waters's art space, MS PAM (Martyr Sauce Pop Art Museum), for several minutes and have forgotten the real world. I’ve acclimated to its decadent, fun-house hues.

I had already passed, for instance, through a space painted pink from floor to ceiling, with a giant rotating lunch box—nodding to the TV show Julia. (The box also appeared in her Yellow No. 5 show, which just closed at Bellevue Art Museum). I had gone through a small hallway, also pink, and into this room that artist Kenji Hamai Stoll painted with a three-dimensional mural: He started on the ceiling and worked his way down the walls. Amid the neighborhood’s aging brick, the whole experience is a slap of color. 

MS PAM is the new expansion of Waters’s Martyr Sauce, which remains just outside and down some stairs. The gallery has always felt like an excellent, underground secret: part satire, part pop art hallucination. It’s carried that vibe over from its first location, where it opened in 2012 in a building’s stairwell, bringing a burst of wit to Pioneer Square’s gallery scene. A big sign declared the special sauce’s ingredients: “Piss, Distilled Vinegar (contains 2% or less of the following) Irreverence, High Fructose Cough Syrup, Non Hydrogenated Snake Oil, Street (and/or) Book Smarts, White Privilege, Black Rage, Natural Flavor, Artificial Color.”

Image: Stefan Milne

Kenji Stoll painted a mural that spans the ceiling and walls. 

Image: Stefan Milne

Yet, because they were so hidden, in both spaces, Waters has had to coax people in. She painted the railing outside Martyr Sauce pink this year, to show that the gallery is still there. “I always felt like a carney,” she says of trying to draw people in. “I’m like, ‘Step right up!’”

The pandemic only exacerbated the struggle to show art underground. Martyr Sauce has no windows and, since it sits in the belly of an old building in a historic district, Waters had limitations on how much she could alter it to, say, improve airflow. So when Ebbets Field Flannels vacated its well-fenestrated adjacent storefront, Waters decided to expand.

She’d originally planned to open in December, but she realized that “made no sense whatsoever." Even yesterday's opening was quiet. She figures by July, pandemic willing, the space will be in full swing. “I have people ask, ‘When are you opening up?’ When you won’t kill me when you breathe on me. I don’t know. What am I rushing for?”

Life-sized versions of the giant lunchbox and thermos that greet you upon entry. 

If you do not want to step in with your potentially deadly breath, you can look in through large windows to get a reverse experience of what I did: a portal from the real world into the imagined. If you do enter, it’ll be with a timed ticket, and Waters will keep occupancy caps low, four or five people. The tickets are as much a safety measure as a way to diverge from the typical gallery model. Waters will charge admission ($5 per person to start) instead of trying to sell paintings off the walls. “There’s nothing in here that’s going to be particularly for sale,” she says. “It’s all installation work.” (There may be a gift shop, too.) That opens up possibilities for what she and artists can do. It also, she hopes, will deepen peoples' encounters with the art, instead of flitting freely from one gallery to the next. “It’s so when you walk into the space, you’re part of that as well. You’re part of facilitating it.”

From the start, Martyr Sauce has been a disruption in Pioneer Square's art scene. At First Thursday art walks, as other galleries served a little free wine, it felt like an actual party, with a band playing. Waters knows her presence—a Black woman running a wild pop art gallery—is still a disruption, now an increasingly visible one. The gallery’s building dates to 1900. “There was no place for me on this block during that time. And even now, there aren’t any other Black-owned businesses that I know of.”

Kenji Hamai Stoll, a muralist who’s worked with Waters before and collaborated on the opening show, says Martyr Sauce’s energy has always drawn him, even though he doesn’t frequent Pioneer Square galleries. Here was something worth coming from Tacoma for. He figures as the city keeps opening up and the gallery finds its footing “it’ll just continue to evolve and do crazier and more imaginative things."

There already isn’t much like it in the neighborhood (the freewheeling, and ticketed, energies of First Hill's Museum of Museums is the only thing that feels close). It kicks you into a different dimension. When I arrived, Waters handed me a pair of bright blue shoe covers, like shower caps for my feet. She was still painting, but I didn’t need to cover up because the floor’s black and white checker paint was wet—it was because I was standing on part of the art.   

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