Since December 1987, when the first Nirvana lineup started playing, Aberdeen has never been the same. Those iconic musicians took our region by storm almost from day one. In January 2022, the Downtown Aberdeen Association finally received ownership of the iconic green highway sign that Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic made famous so many years ago.
The sign, intended to show the distances to Elma, Montesano and Aberdeen, became a tourist -destination for die-hard fans when Novoselic hoisted Cobain who covered a portion of each number leaving only 6,6,6. So many fans stopped on the verge to replicate the image that it became an ongoing traffic and safety issue. In 2018, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) made a hasty change, covering the bottom 6 with a 7.
But the adjustment didn’t accurately reflect driving distances, so a new sign was called for. It was October 4, 2018, when Wil Russoul of the Downtown Aberdeen Association 98520 had a brilliant idea. “I was in a Nirvana coffee shop, and it immediately occurred to me right there.” He wanted to buy the sign and make it a permanent, publicly accessible art installation. But the sign’s safety and official removal worried him. “Everyone is going to think that it’s the end of an era, but this was an opportunity!”
Russoul immediately started calling WSDOT trying to figure out the next step since road signs aren’t typically sold to the public. “I finally found an employee who started laughing when I told him what I was thinking.” The man finally admitted that he didn’t quite know how to proceed. “When I stressed the significance of what the sign would do for downtown Aberdeen, I got him to advocate on my behalf,” shares Russoul.
“That began a dialog,” he continues. “There were lots of policies we had to overcome, and I had to express to the state that the sign is art.” This put them on the right track as there is precedent for cases like this. After several setbacks, the next hurdle was to make sure the piece was the last of the official signs with the 6, 6, 6 numbering. “This was an art installation, not a replica, it had to be authentic and real.” WSDOT took photos throughout the removal process documenting that it was indeed original.
The Association then had to partner with the city to make sure the sign wouldn’t just get remade. They eventually fundraised enough so that taxpayers weren’t charged for the sign, the removal process, a new sign and relocation to a second, brand new site.
The years between 2018’s brainstorm and 2022’s successful delivery were tense ones for Russoul and the Association. Fans stopping to take photos and even the sign itself were at risk from distracted drivers or slippery road conditions. But the new sign—which has distances ending 5, 5, 5—is now in place and on January 13, the original arrived safely at the Association.
That moment was surreal, admits Russoul. “The moment was so much bigger than I thought it was going to be. Then it was ‘what have I done?’ because this has gotten serious attention.” The first meeting to plan for the sign’s new home took place January 20. “Choosing a location isn’t an easy thing,” he admits. WSDOT has input on the site if it’s outdoors because as an authentic state asset, it can impact navigating drivers.
Whatever is decided, they’ll build out and around it. Personally, Russoul hopes that if it’s an outdoor location. “People will come play their guitar near it,” he says. “My ultimate wish is to hold the world’s largest guitar lesson and maybe make it an annual event. Outdoors honors the fans because they can interact with it all day or even two in the morning.” But outdoors also runs the risk of the sign being defaced or tagged by graffiti artists. The team will research coatings or acrylic-type coverings which are easy to maintain.
Beyond the physical sign, the Association is creating artistic ways to maximize the city’s status as an Art and Music District. Working to receive designation as one of the state’s Creative District Communities, they hope to enhance walking tours and create an audio interview library, all illustrated by large graphically-styled guitar picks around town which range in size up to a meter across. Some will be posted in stores, others around town. They might include unique QR codes playing music or interviews or be painted by local artisans.
But at the end of the day, says Russoul, “it’s to honor Cobain’s family, the fans and downtown Aberdeen. Maybe, once the installation is up, it sparks things we haven’t even thought of yet.” Follow the sign’s journey via the Aberdeen Downtown Association, Facebook or Nirvana98520. Then grab some friends and come recreate the photo yourself while exploring all that the city has to offer.