The story of Erin Blackwell, a 13-year-old street kid and prostitute known as “Tiny,” was captured in the 1984 Oscar-nominated documentary “Streetwise.” With a follow-up film showing to SIFF audiences this month, her tale is sadly relevant in Seattle today.
She’s still there. The pretty girl with the set jaw and the veil over her eyes, who was known on the street, and on the big screen, as “Tiny.”
You see her when Erin Blackwell smiles, when she’s remembering, when she makes some crack she knows will stun you into silence.
Blackwell — “Tiny” — is 47 now and living in Kirkland. She carries the weight of the 30 years that have passed since she was a 13-year-old prostitute, and the star of the 1984 Academy Award-nominated documentary “Streetwise.”
The film, made by famed portrait photographer Mary Ellen Mark and her husband, Martin Bell, chronicled the lives of a group of kids living on the edge of Pike Place Market.
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“Streetwise” was stunning and raw at the time, but the same film could be shot today. Seattle continues to struggle with homelessness, addiction and kids who are just as lost as Blackwell used to be.
Decades later, she is off drugs and the mother of 10 children. The older five are by five different men and the younger five by her estranged husband.
She has regrets. Many of them.
More than anything, though, she is a survivor.
The film is a follow-up to “Streetwise,” and is a testament to the devotion of Bell and Mark, who died last year of a blood disease at 75.
In 1983, Mark was on assignment for Life magazine when she spotted Blackwell in the parking lot of a Seattle club called The Monastery.
“I was so high off of something,” Blackwell recalled. “I thought (Mark) was the police or some kind of investigator.”
When Mark told Blackwell she was photographing street kids, Blackwell wanted in. She allowed Mark full access and posed for portraits, the most famous one capturing Blackwell dressed as a French prostitute for Halloween.
After the Life magazine story was published, Mark and Bell returned to Seattle to make a film version called “Streetwise.”
It was the start of a 30-year relationship. Mark was there at the birth of Blackwell’s first child, and Bell was there when two of her children were taken away. (They were later raised with the help of Blackwell’s aunt, Katie Barfield.)
Mark and Bell were a consistent, functional force in a life that both yearned for and rejected structure. They paid attention to the girl. Urged her on. Questioned her choices. Loved her.
“I got attached to them,” Blackwell said of the filmmakers. “I had a chance to go and live with them but I didn’t want to go to school. I was newly on the street and I could do anything. There were no rules. I was just free.”
In a video made to help raise funds for this new film, Mark remembered their first meeting: “I knew immediately she was a star,” she said. “She was beautiful, engaging and impossible to forget.”
Indeed, you couldn’t take your eyes off of Blackwell. You couldn’t believe the things that were coming out of her mouth: that she was getting into cars for “dates” with strange men; that she was spinning around on a lunch-counter stool while her mother called her prostitution “a phase she’s going through right now.”
“Streetwise” brought Blackwell to the Oscars with Mark and Bell, and a movie offer, which she turned down in part because she couldn’t read and refused to be filmed nude from the waist up.
“I had my chances, but of course, I blew them,” she said. “I was young and picky.”
She stayed on the street, had more children, and became addicted to drugs.
“I was putting anything in my arms.”
She used until she was 30, when she met her future husband, William Charles, and got pregnant. (She doesn’t believe in abortion.)
Crazy as her life was, Blackwell never lost touch with Mark and Bell.
After Mark’s passing last May, Bell came to Seattle to have Thanksgiving with Blackwell and her family. Bell gave her a ring that belonged to Mark. She wears it every day.
It all started when Blackwell was 13 and living in a Seattle apartment with her mother, Patricia. She went to the downtown J.C. Penney store to buy a Mother’s Day gift and ran into a friend who she used to roller skate with. He was living on the street.
“He said, ‘We don’t have to go to school; there are no rules,’ ” Blackwell remembered. She went home, stuffed her belongings in a trash bag and joined him. Days were spent on the street and nights sleeping at a friend’s apartment.
Blackwell was a virgin then, and mistakenly shared that with a woman she thought was her friend. The woman set Blackwell up with two men who drugged and raped her while the woman held Blackwell’s hands down, she said.
After two days, she said, they gave her $50 and dropped her at her mother’s. When she told her mother what happened, her mother didn’t believe her.
So she returned to her friends at First and Pike and eventually became a prostitute.
“It doesn’t last long,” she said of her dates. “And you have to learn to do for yourself.”
Was she ever scared?
“Depended on who it was,” she said. “The one I got into the car with in the movie was in his 80s. There were some younger guys, but no one ever hit me.”
Blackwell dreamed of becoming a police officer or a veterinarian. She wanted children, a family that she would love and care for.
She got those things, but they came through a haze of drugs and men and dysfunction.
Now that her life is settled a bit, Blackwell worries about what people will think of her when they see the new film.
“Tell people that I was struggling still,” she said. “It wasn’t all peachy keen. It was really a bad time when they were filming this … I was on Methadone, I gained a lot of weight, was in the house a lot, sleeping.”
The struggle continues: Blackwell and her husband are separated after 16 years of marriage. He is now living in another city with another woman.
Her 16-year-old daughter, Ranaja, collapsed at school in March and is now at Seattle Children’s hospital.
Her other children have managed.
Daylon, now 30, still lives with Blackwell’s aunt and just had his second child.
LaShawndrea, 29, is in jail for outstanding warrants, including one related to a prostitution charge.
Keanna, 26, is married with two children and works as a teacher’s assistant.
Mikka, 21, “smokes a lot of weed and works at a car wash,” Blackwell said. “He’s still doing his thing.”
The rest are living at home: Rayshon, 18; Ranaja, 16; E’mari, 15; Julian, 12; Kayteonna, 11; and J’Lisa, 8.
None of Blackwell’s children have seen “Streetwise.”
“No,” she said quickly. “I won’t let them watch it. I’m afraid they’re going to like what they see.
“They ask a lot of questions and I don’t care to talk with my kids about dates I’ve pulled or drugs I’ve done,” she said. “Like, ‘Why? Why did you go down there? Why did Grandma drink all the time?’ ”
Blackwell doesn’t work. She has bone spurs in her feet and carpal tunnel in her hands. She makes ends meet with child support and Social Security for one son who has developmental disabilities.
But like that girl behind the veil, with her crossed arms and set smile, Blackwell still has dreams.
“I still hope to find somebody else,” she said. “There’s got to be someone else out there. I just have to meet them.”
She doesn’t know why Mary Ellen Mark picked her, why she chose to make beautiful art from her broken life.
“I think she was drawn to me because I was open. There was no second-guessing anything. I was ready for whatever. I just loved being around them.”