BETHEL -- In a city with no curbside trash pickup, where plastic shopping bags must be biodegradable but stuff still accumulates in yards, dumpsters are not only essential but celebrated.
The dumpsters of Bethel are canvases for public art and billboards for public health. They are where residents are supposed to throw away garbage but their value extends beyond function.
"Everybody thinks of Bethel as being ugly and it's not," said Tiffany Tony, operations director for the region's vocational school, Yuut Elitnaurviat. "Bethel is quirky."
And one way residents embrace its idiosyncrasies and beautify Bethel is with art and slogans on dumpsters. Tony for years printed and sold "Dumpsters of Bethel" T-shirts, modeled after the "Doors of Philadelphia" art posters.
The dumpster painting goes back to at least the 1990s. It started as a community cleanup competition and continues on for kids at summer art camp. An early message on a bin at the small boat harbor said "PFDs Save Lives," a reference to personal flotation devices, or life jackets.
There's "Smoking Is For Fish Not For People" with an image of drying salmon over a fire. An older one features a scary skull smoking a cigarette with the message "Tobacco: America's #1 Killer."
A painted walrus promotes dental health as a little boy squirts some "tusk paste." A family of gators welcomes people to "Alligator Acres," a neighborhood with a reputation for spring flooding. There are smiley faces and dogs, rainbows and moons, superheroes and monsters. Written inside a big heart: "Have You Hugged Your Kids Today?"
Of the city's 140 dumpsters, about half are painted, said Jim Colonel, Bethel's foreman of hauled utilities, which includes dumpster service. More are decorated every year. Images fade and bins rust over time. Old ones eventually end up in the landfill.
Birth control tips
One of the most explicit public health dumpsters is also one of the most visible, in the center of town at Watson's Corner on Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway by the state Legislative Information Office.
"Have A Baby when you are ready ... Use Birth Control until then ...," it says on the front, above a rainbow and a child's hand prints.
In the back there's information about "in the moment" options -- condoms, no sex or a diaphragm -- and options that require planning, including the pill, the patch and "3 Month Depo," the contraceptive shot Depo-Provera. There are references to IUDs and permanent fixes of tubal ligations and vasectomies. Images of a syringe accent the message.
"It was a dream of mine for several years to paint that dumpster," said Dr. Elizabeth Roll, a family practice doctor with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. Roll said part of her job is to encourage Bethel young people to use birth control until they are ready to start a family. Some have babies as young as 13 or 14, she said.
About four years ago, a new dumpster was installed in the spot and Roll quietly claimed it. She bought the paint, primed it and painted it with help from her two young daughters, a public health nurse, another YKHC employee and the then-high school principal, who wanted to emphasize the family element of family planning. Children from the neighborhood added flowers, smiley faces and other sweet touches.
Years earlier, a public health nurse spread a message across four dumpsters that said Bethel was No. 1 in chlamydia, referencing the sexually transmitted disease for which Alaska usually has the highest rate of any state. The Yukon-Kuskokwim region's rate is even higher.
"They actually made us paint that one over," said Janet Athanas, Bethel's director of Parks and Recreation at the time. They replaced "chlamydia" with "Warriors," the high school mascot.
No one complained about the birth control message. Roll doesn't know of any patients mentioning the dumpster when they ask about birth control. But it gives people pause.
From eyesore to art
Athanas saw an opportunity in the dumpsters when she took over the newly reinstated parks department in 1997.
"They were all over and they were filthy dirty," Athanas said. She came to Bethel from California, where she ran hair and nail salons and remembered seeing painted garbage bins.
Bethel's were an eyesore. Parents often sent their children to dump the trash but little kids couldn't heft the bags up high enough, so some spilled on the ground.
Maybe a dumpster project would help Bethel residents take pride in their community and keep it clean, she thought.
The parks department started a contest for groups and neighborhoods to adopt dumpsters, paint them and clean up around them. The city Public Works Department washed them. They used old paint. Businesses contributed money for prizes.
Political messages and ads were banned. Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. and other public health groups embraced the project. The paintings had to be appropriate for the public. The state Division of Public Health featured the dumpsters in its Healthy Alaskans 2010 report about creating healthy communities.
The results still draw attention. Wanda Hill of Chevak was recently in Bethel with her 12-year-old, Chris, who asked her why a particular dumpster was written on. She asked him to read it. It was an anti-bullying message.
"And he understood it," his mother said. "So it does work."
Approached while walking to an appointment in Bethel, Robert Hooper said he liked seeing the dumpsters along the way.
"When you read them, it gives you something to think about," he said.
Moms as heroes
The contests eventually ended. The dumpsters no longer are adopted as part of cleanup. For the last several years, children have painted them at the summer art camp for kids ages 6 through 12 overseen by Athanas' sister-in-law, Reyne Athanas, Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center coordinator.
"It's a good way to express themselves and not be afraid of (art)," Reyne Athanas, who now prints the dumpster T-shirts, said.
Each year campers are given a simple theme for their dumpster art: "I want to be ..." "What if ..." "Bethel is ..." "I like ..."
This year this theme was "My Hero." Kids picked teachers and parents, dogs and superheroes, themselves and Jesus.
Caitlin Laraux and Adi Jung, 9-year-old friends, painted their moms.
"Because she's the best. She's the one that gets all the stuff," Adi said.
"It was very beautiful to see," said her mom, Carole Jung.
The dumpsters brighten up Bethel.
"There's not really lots of walls that we could go out and paint big murals on," said Ronda Sargent, current Parks and Rec director. "This is one way we found to do public art."
Anyone in Bethel who wants to paint a dumpster should check with Parks and Rec at 543-7711. Maybe the city will bring back adopt-a-dumpster, Sargent said.
Contact Lisa Demer at email@example.com.