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Art-warfare guerrilla creates bomb scare by abandoning truck with the word BOMB painted on it at Westlake Center on July 15, 1996.

HistoryLink.org Essay 3679 : Printer-Friendly Format

On July 15, 1996, police evacuate a nine-block area around Westlake Center in downtown Seattle after a pickup truck containing a heart-shaped, red metal sculpture is abandoned in Westlake Park at 4th Avenue and Pine Street. Words painted on the truck lead some to believe that the truck may contain a bomb, and the vehicle's owner, artist Jason Sprinkle (1969-2005), also known as Subculture Joe, is later arrested.

Words on Truck Say "Bomb"

Guerrilla artist Jason Graham Sprinkle, also known as Subculture Joe, was later charged under the new Washington State Explosives Act after he admitted parking the truck in Westlake Park and flattening the tires before fleeing. The front of the decrepit, pockmarked truck had been painted with the words “Timberlake Carpentry Rules (The Bomb!).”

According to The Seattle Times, Sprinkle protested, “It was no prank. It was art,” as police led him away later that evening.

Art Attack?

The truck was abandoned at about 3 p.m. About 45 minutes later, police, reacting to the implied bomb threat, evacuated thousands of people in neighboring buildings, including Westlake Center, the Bon Marche, Nordstrom, and Century Square. The Metro bus tunnel and a number of streets were also shut down, resulting in snarled traffic throughout much of downtown.

Crowds of onlookers watched from a block away as police deployed a bomb-sniffing robot borrowed from King County. (Inspired by this experience, the City Council would later approve purchase of the City’s own $120,000 robot.) Eventually, the artwork proved to be bomb-free and the alert was lifted.

Following the incident, Sprinkle called a friend, AP reporter Peggy Andersen, who picked him up at a convenience store. After taking him to the AP office, Andersen phoned the police and Sprinkle surrendered at about 7 p.m.

Sprinkle was a founding member of a group called Fabricators of the Attachments, also known as Subculture Joe. The group had first gained notoriety when it attached a 700-pound ball and chain to the 48-foot Hammering Man statue that stands in front of the Seattle Art Museum. That event, on Labor Day, September 7, 1993, had generated sympathetic and somewhat amused reactions.

Westlake Park Heart Art

The bomb scare was, in fact, the third art-heart-related incident in Westlake Park, the public plaza outside Westlake Center, although it was the first in which Sprinkle acted alone. The first had occurred two years previously, on Valentine’s Day, when the Fabricators erected a heart for “the unloved,” inviting spurned lovers to write the names of their beloved on it and then to strike it with a sledgehammer.

Later, in January 1995, the Fabricators built a 13-foot, three-quarter ton steel heart pierced through the center with a 12-foot pole in the shape of a knife. This sculpture was left in Westlake Park to protest the decision to reopen Pine Street, which had been closed to allow unfettered pedestrian access across the park between 4th and 5th avenues.

The decision had been made in a vote after the Nordstroms, owners of the Seattle-based department store chain, said they would not open a flagship store downtown in the former Fredrick and Nelsons building unless vehicular traffic were restored to Pine Street. Some felt the decision had damaged the public character of the park and represented a surrender to the rich and powerful. In this spirit, the Fabricators painted slogans on their heart, including “Big Brother” and “Corporate Interests.” After negotiations with the Seattle Parks Department, Sprinkle hauled that heart away.

The bomb scare incident apparently followed on the heels of discussions between Sprinkle and members of the Seattle Art Commission, according to AP reporter Andersen. She said Sprinkle was motivated by concern over lack of support for the arts and was also having some personal problems. Sprinkle, who said he did not expect people to notice or react to the word “bomb” on the truck, apparently tried to contact Mayor Norm Rice’s office to explain that the sculpture was harmless, but an aide hung up on him, according to Andersen. Sprinkle was held in lieu of $100,000 bond and was later sentenced to 12 months probation.

On May 16, 2005, Jason Sprinkle was killed when he was hit by a freight train in Long Beach, Mississippi, where he was visiting his aunt and looking for work. There were no witnesses and it is unclear how it happened.

William Dauber, Dee Norton, and Jennifer Bjorhus, “Artist Held After Bomb Scare,” The Seattle Times, July 16, 1996; Carol M. Ostrom, "Free Art, but Free Speech?" Ibid., July 17, 1996; "Seattle’s Heart Attack," Ibid., July 17, 1996; Joshua Robin, "Man Held in Bomb Threat That Shut Evergreen Point Bridge for Hours," Ibid., September 27, 2000; Susan Paynter, "'2001' Monolith a New Number in Our Guerilla Art Catalog," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 5, 2001; Sheila Farr, "Subculture Joe Staged Guerrilla Art Events," The Seattle Times, May 24, 2005, website accessed May 24, 2005 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/home/).
Note: This essay was updated on May 26, 2005.

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