Paint Night – Bainbridge Island’s Unofficial Rite of Passage
When we moved to Bainbridge Island in the fall of 2017, one of the things I consistently noticed were odd, and seemingly random, large letters and numbers printed in white paint on the streets throughout the island. Some were quite faded, while others were obviously more recent—none of them made any sense though, and I thought it to be the oddest form of graffiti I’d ever seen. Sometime later I found out what these acts of “graffiti” were all about—an unofficial rite of passage for the island’s graduating high school seniors, and definitely not considered graffiti by most Islanders.
Its secretive, sort of…I asked a friend of mine, whose son is a 2020 graduate, if he’d be willing to talk to me about it…he wouldn’t…the tradition has always been “under the radar” and solely driven by and between the students.
Having met a dead-end with a recent participant, I reached out to long-time Islander, John Fossett (John is a fount BI of information, and if he doesn’t know the answer, he knows someone who does). John wasn’t sure when the tradition began, but he did say that a friend and her sister both graduated from Bainbridge Highschool (BHS) in 1967 and 1969 respectively, and by then, it was a well-known tradition. Per John, “Both of my kids participated, I stayed near the phone with bail money.”
John then referred me to Charles Averill. Charlie moved to the island in the early 1960s, when his parents purchased the Bainbridge Review, he graduated from BHS in 1972, and has served on several community boards over the years, and currently on the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum (BIHM). Although he didn’t participate in the tradition as a graduating student, he does recall taking the bus to middle school in the late 1960s, “there was an old (moss-covered, not very sturdy) wooden bus shelter near the corner of Miller Road and Koura Road, that had an enormous “54” painted on the side. I always assumed that that was from paint night in 1954. The bus shelter was taken down sometime later (I’d guess maybe 20 years ago), and the 54 painted on the side lasted as long as the shelter did.”
Charlie was kind enough to forward my query to Tom Lamping, also a BIHM board member, who grew up on Agate Pass and graduated from BHS in 1967. Tom considers Paint Night to be a “wonderful tradition” and had researched it as well. He believes it began in 1953, when a few seniors climbed the water tower at the high school and painted it to celebrate the Class of 1953. However, this was met with great disdain by the county, the police and school officials, and the following year they clamped down on climbing the tower, and so the seniors decided to take it to the streets, mainly focusing on areas near the high school, at intersections, and in front of their friend’s homes. In those days, press coverage was mostly negative, but the movement was gaining “secretive” steam among seniors. Tom recalled that in 1966, the popular beer “Brew 66” was a favorite of graduates and became their slogan for that graduating class. “I remember in 1967, when I graduated, there was an informal committee of several seniors who discussed the parameters with a few teachers who were BHS graduates, learning the do’s and don’ts, including absolute secrecy. We had Paint Night on a weeknight, so we could compare notes the next day in class.”
Tom recommended I get in touch with Ralph Munro, former five-term Washington Secretary of State. Mr. Munro’s family has lived on the island since the late 1880s and he grew up in the little house that was once the Munro Family Store in Crystal Springs, he graduated from BHS in 1961. Mr. Munro doesn’t recall what specifically initiated Paint Night, but he does remember his brother participating in 1953, and in 1961, when he graduated, he not only participated, but was one of the students that climbed the water tower at BHS (it was a very dangerous climb, and Mr. Munro expressed his relief that no one now, or in the past has been injured). Mr. Munro then imparted a couple of comical anecdotes: when he graduated, the USS West Virginia was tied up at the old dock in Eagle Harbor awaiting the scrap yard, some of his classmates took row boats into the harbor and painted on the ship’s hull, one of those classmate’s father was a ferry captain and came upon the offending youths, using the spotlight on his ferry to “call them out”. Another amusing anecdote had to do with Mr. Munro personally—in the early 1980s, a sheriff’s officer ran over fresh paint, which caused minor damage to his car, he pursued and arrested the culprits, giving them citations, which required a court appearance. When then Secretary of State Munro found out about it, he contacted both the Sherriff’s Department and the County Prosecutor and requested a meeting, and drove from his office in Olympia to Port Orchard to explain the harmless tradition of Paint Night, he also informed them that if the kids went to court, he went right along with them, the case was dropped the next day.
Unfortunately, in 2008, Paint Night turned destructive—as reported by Tristan Baurick for The Kitsap Sun—a 15-foot-long “2008” was painted across seven lanes of the BHS track field, and a lopsided “08” was painted on the hand carved “Welcome to Bainbridge Island” sign that greets drivers as they arrive from the Agate Pass Bridge. Both incidents caused thousands of dollars in damage and renewed calls to put an end to the long-honored tradition.
In 2016, another group of seniors were caught defacing the pavement in front of the Waterfront Park Community Center—as reported by Jessica Shelton for the Bainbridge Review—these seniors however, were senior citizens. According to the article, one of the vandals was George Bussell, who graduated in 1945, and later, served as BHS principal in the late 1960s. While serving as principal, he tried to cancel Paint Night, but soon found out he was in the minority, since then he declared “It’s wonderful” and happily scrawled his own graduation year on the pavement. Although George didn’t graduate from BHS (he graduated from Everett High School), he loved living on Bainbridge Island and served a term as President of the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum.
As many traditions go, this one is mostly enjoyed by the community as a whole, it’s a celebration of our young adults and their accomplishments. It should be noted, that the city does request these budding street artists use non-binding paint that dissolves with rain over a period of time, and of course, be safe and cautious of traffic and respectful of personal property.
I’d like to thank John Fossett, Charles Averill, Tom Lamping and Ralph Munro for taking the time to share their recollections and knowledge.
*Paint Night images taken by Margaret Millmore near Lynwood Center/Pleasant Beach