History: According to the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Business Improvement Association, the origin of the gum is “a little sketchy”. Some historians believe that the tradition of the alley started after WWII as a San Luis Obispo High School graduating class event. Others believe it started in the late 1950s, as rivalry between San Luis Obispo High School and California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) students. By the 1970s, Bubblegum Alley was well established. When shop owners complained that it was “unsanitary and disgusting”, the alley underwent a full cleaning. The gum graffiti survived two full cleanings in the 1970s. In 1996, the BIA unsuccessfully attempted to have another alley cleaning.
Recognition: Throughout the years, San Luis Obispo’s Bubblegum Alley has been featured on a number of television shows, news programs, and in newspapers around the world. Newspapers such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have addressed the disgusts and delights of the gum wall visitors. Other newspaper articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Grand Rapids Press in Michigan, the Times Union from Albany, New York, and The Guardian in the United Kingdom. KSBY Action 6 News did a story about the alleyway and broadcast it nationally. TV crews filmed the alley for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, That’s Incredible!, Real People, and on PBS. MTV featured Bubblegum Alley in the show Call to Greatness. The crew picked Bubblegum Alley to film the episode on breaking the world record for largest bubblegum bubble. It featured record holder Susan “Chewsy Suzy” Williams, and at the end of the show a graphic was shown that said that while she was there she blew a 24-inch (610 mm) bubble, which was not shown on television. (Her record bubble, which was blown on national TV in 1996, was 23 inches.) ABC’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not also aired a story on October 14, 1984 about the alley. It was also featured on an episode of The Girls Next Door on E! and mentioned in an episode of “United States of Tara”.
Books: In chapter seventeen of the novel Mr. Monk On the Road by Lee Goldberg, Bubblegum Alley is mentioned, described, and forms the setting for Monk’s discovery of a dead body. Bubblegum Alley is also mentioned throughout Megan McDonald’s book “Judy Moody: Around the World in 8 and a Half Days”.
Music: “Weird Al” Yankovic name-checked Bubblegum Alley in his 1978 song “Take Me Down,” an ode to San Luis Obispo.
Traditions and myths: An alleyway full of over-chewed, 40-year-old bubble gum sounds unpleasant, but contrary to that belief many have started their own gummy traditions to keep this alleyway a must-see. One obvious tradition is the different fraternity and sorority letters. Another tradition that might confuse someone unfamiliar with the area is the variety of numbers lining the walls. To most people they may seem like a random assortment of numbers, but to any Cal Poly student these numbers represent Week of Welcome (or WOW) numbers. WOW is the first week before school starts in the fall for incoming freshmen; each WOW group has a different number and the leaders of each group take their students to Bubblegum Alley to leave their first mark on the city. Some just stick their gum on the overloaded walls while others leave their group number.
Professional artists: The Alley has inspired professional artists such as Matthew Hoffman. On the east end of the alley, up high on the north-facing wall, a giant self-portrait of Hoffman titled “Projectbubble Gum” is created entirely with bubble gum. The picture of the artist blowing a bubble required a tremendous amount of gum, which he was able to get with the help of the community. His theory is, “if an individual participates in their community they will earn an invested interest in their community. The community chewed the bubblegum, and many individuals [felt] as though they were a part of its creation. This instills a sense of stewardship in one’s community”.Even the robotics Team 1717, featured in the book The New Cool (book), is depicted in neon blue gum.
“Projectbubble Gum” is the largest piece in the Alley and is higher up than most to ensure its survival.
Personal Experience: This is a very short adventure, mainly for photographs I would imagine. This alley is in the heart of SLO’s (San Luis Obispo) downtown so there is plenty of shopping you can do. The Madonna Inn is 5 minutes away too so if you’re in the area make sure to scope it out!
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