From Gretchen Leggitt’s colorful mountainscapes to Jason LaClair’s Coast Salish designs, street art has played a major role in defining Bellingham’s character. Now, residents can expect to see even more art around town thanks to Noisy Waters Mural Festival, a new annual event taking place Aug. 18–20 on the Bellingham waterfront.

“Public art is essential to define a sense of place,” says Leggitt, co-organizer of Noisy Waters. “We could have a monochromatic, faceless community— but public art allows us to create a unique sense of identity. And I think that it creates opportunities to communicate important messages.”

Noisy Waters aims to help do exactly this. Throughout the three-day festival, eight acclaimed muralists will compete by painting portable walls, and winners will receive a commission to create new large-scale murals. Moreover, the community at large is invited to come vote for their favorite artists and celebrate alongside them.

“We are going to have a weekend of live painting, workshops, public art, public engagement with the artists, music, DJs,” Leggitt says. “It’s just going to be a fun, creative party.”

The Importance of Placemaking

Noisy Waters is the brainchild of Leggitt and Nick Hartrich, both of whom are also co-founders of Paper Whale, a local arts incubator ( In addition to bringing creatives together for free monthly artist talks, Paper Whale promotes opportunities for the community to voice ideas about how to foster a sense of place on the Bellingham waterfront through art.

This goal of placemaking and arts engagement extends to Noisy Waters Mural Festival, whose name pays homage to the origin of the word Whatcom. Whatcom is derived from the Lhaq’temish word Xwot’qom, meaning “noisy waters,” and the festival “aims to make noise in Bellingham by hosting a confluence of vibrant muralists and musicians.”

“It’s so fun to work with people, to collaborate,” Leggitt says. “I learned how to spray paint from another muralist, learning tricks of the trade [and] technique. I think that getting a bunch of artists in one place, sharing this space, finding opportunities to provide amateur artists the ability to step up and have their voice heard … is really important. And it’s finally happening.”

Leggitt says she’s been dreaming of hosting this kind of festival for years. Thanks to her work as both a muralist and arts educator, she understands the value of public art on a deeply personal level. Leggitt grew up near what became the RiNo Arts District of Denver, an industrial neighborhood that was revitalized by street art. When she painted her first mural in Downtown Bellingham, street art was sparse— but she saw the potential for a similar sort of impact.

This hunch, of course, was correct. Leggitt started receiving floods of positive feedback before that first mural was even finished, and she’s been transforming walls around Bellingham ever since.

“I understood at that point how important it is to create positivity and joy in a community,” she says. “Hopefully this mural festival has that same effect, really increasing the awareness of the clusters of impact that art can have on a community, and letting that just grow and grow.”

What to Expect

Leggitt describes Noisy Waters as a “friendly competition,” and eight artists were selected out of 130 applicants from
around the world to participate in the inaugural festival. This final group was chosen by a panel including Leggitt,
Hartrich, Amy Chaloupka (curator at the Whatcom Museum), Tammy Landis (curator of Paper Whale), and Free Borsey (artist of Lummi Nation). The panel made selections based on the merits of the artists’ portfolio, as well as their large-scale projects. Moreover, Leggitt says the committee is looking for artists who “have a unique story to tell.”

“We are actively seeking to include a diverse body of artists, including BIPOC artists, to increase and promote a diverse language of public art in our streets,” she says.

Selected artists will then live-paint 8-by-8 walls throughout the three-day festival, and these walls will be auctioned off at the end of the event. The public is invited to vote for their favorite artists throughout the weekend, and the four
winners will receive cash contracts to paint large-scale walls in Bellingham.

“This format gives the community of Bellingham the opportunity to have some engagement and ownership,” Leggitt says.

The grand-prize Artist Mural Commission Award winner will receive a $10,000 commission (Industrial Credit Union). The first-place winner of the People’s Choice awards will receive a $7,500 commission (Natural System
Design), the second-place winner will receive a $5,000 commission (Chuckanut Builders), and the thirdplace winner will receive $500 in cash. The festival will also provide “free walls” so that up-and-coming artists who were not selected for the festival can gain experience.

Getting Involved

Live painting isn’t the only thing to look forward to about Noisy Waters: Attendees can also expect painting workshops, plenty of music, and even a kids’ wall. In other words, even if you’re not an artist, you’re still bound to have a good time.

“It’s just fun watching people create,” Leggitt says. “If somebody is down at the pump track or grabbing a beer at Trackside, this festival is going to be right next door to that. So just swing on by and see unique artists creating live art!”

And while this might be Noisy Waters’ first year in action, it certainly won’t be the last. 2024 will be even bigger, as Leggitt says they plan to select even more artists and activate more walls in future events. In the meantime, community members can support the festival through volunteering, donating, sponsoring a wall, or even hosting visiting artists in ADUs, hotels, or AirBnBs.

Attending, supporting, or volunteering with Noisy Waters is one opportunity to have a say in Bellingham’s evolving creative identity, but there are opportunities to get involved in the arts year-round. Leggitt recommends registering for Paper Whale events, showing up at First Friday art walks, and supporting the creative economy by purchasing from local artists and makers. After all, a thriving creative community is part of what gives a city its sense of place— but building (and sustaining) this community takes effort.

“I am excited to see Bellingham grow in the right direction— so providing affordable housing for people, supporting smart growth, really listening to the community members, and allowing creative voices to be heard,” Leggitt says. “I think that, so long as the community continues to have the opportunity [for] creative development and inspiration, we’re on the right track.”