In Patrick Nguyen’s signature image painted on various walls around the city, the Space Needle is a beacon of hope. The heart at its base is a reminder of love and support, colored green to pay homage to the Emerald City. “The present times, dire times, a lot of fear and unknown,” Nguyen said, “creating a Space Needle with a heart is a clear message. What we are doing is helping the greater good.”
Since Seattle quieted down after Gov. Jay Inslee’s strictest lockdown took hold, Nguyen has painted dozens of murals, the largest of which is a sprawling tree with an anatomical heart at its center.
Shota Nakajima had to board up Adana, his high-end Japanese restaurant in Capitol Hill. He had just done a deep clean of the interior, and “the last thing I want is breaking in. Just wanted to make sure it’s completely protected so I can sleep at night,” he said.
Nakajima asked four artist friends — including Nguyen — to paint the blank boards with each of their unique styles. Unable to provide food for the neighborhood, Nakajima sees the murals as a way to contribute good-will during this time. “At least I am able to provide something that is not super depressing to the neighborhood,” he said.
Indeed, the murals coming up around town are far from depressing. They are an unforeseen public service; the city looks ominous, as if it were waiting for a natural disaster to strike with its quiet streets and boarded-up windows.
When restaurants, bars and small businesses started closing temporarily, owners began reaching out to artists to paint their storefronts. The plywood many were erecting was constantly being tagged with graffiti anyway. In the Chinatown-International District, artists offered to paint a mural for Jade Garden, a neighborhood favorite, after its windows were vandalized.
Seattle Office of Arts and Culture Curator and Collections Manager Blake Haygood said, “Art really has that power to settle things down a little bit. We’re in it together.”
Social media users are posting the surprises they find online, a healing balm to the pandemic’s side effects of shuttered businesses, vandalism and a communal thirst for something cheery and uplifting. The parade of colors is cropping up everywhere, accomplishing multiple goals at once.
Keith Wilson owns Bon Voyage Vintage in Pioneer Square and had to board up his windows after someone attempted to kick them in. When the Alliance for Pioneer Square reached out to local businesses with a roster of artists to paint their storefronts, Wilson chose an artist who painted animals. She came out to paint vibrant pink sloths lazily swinging from branches with the tagline “hang in there.”
“It is bringing people down to the Square,” Wilson said. “Makes people stop for a second.”
The way the murals have bloomed across the city is unique, Haygood said; it is a process that is happening organically and faster than city arts projects, which take months because they are paid for by taxpayers. “I think it shows resilience of the art community and how it’s interwoven through the community,” he said.
Murals make art more accessible because they are integrated into the daily landscape instead of being cordoned off in galleries and museums. But Haygood said the murals are also a sort of “proxy” for public sentiment: Even if venues are closed, they are not forgotten.
“This is just so unique,” he said. “We can’t help physically with people, as [we would with] earthquake or disaster response. In a way, the artwork is sort of a stand-in for people. A way for us to hold that memory.”
Art as essential
The University District Partnership (UDP) reached out to businesses in their area around the University of Washington who had boarded up and connected them with local artists from University Heights Center Artists Collective. UDP was able to get a local branch of Sherwin Williams to donate paint. Good paint is usually the most expensive supply in a muralist’s toolkit. UDP is paying the artists at no cost to the businesses.
The murals are a result of a trifecta of alliances among community groups, artists and businesses. In many cases, business associations — the Ballard Alliance, sodo Business Improvement Area and University District Partnership, among others — are acting as connectors between individual businesses and artists. The streamlined approach is responsible for the artistic transformation happening in every corner of the city. Murals on plywood have been spotted in Ballard, Capitol Hill, Columbia City, Pioneer Square and White Center.
Elise Tissot Storey responded to the Artist Collective’s call for murals. She had been “resisting an urge” to paint pieces of despair and hopelessness as the COVID-19 crisis continued. The opportunity to paint something cheerful was a welcome respite. Her fashion-model-inspired figure is on the right door of the Buffalo Exchange on 45th and University Way. A tall model dressed in vintage frills with a voluminous beehive updo is flanked by a pastel, orange-peach background that distracts from the current dreariness and uncertainty of the time.
“I was excited to be able to add some vibrance to our quiet, distraught city,” Tissot Storey said.
For her, art is as basic a need as food, shelter, air and water. Colors and shapes are life-giving. She saw this firsthand when she traveled to the Soviet Bloc in East and Central Europe at age 17. There, she saw a connection between the crisis and a lack of color. “People really lived in sadness. Every single wall was gray and bleak. It left such an impression on me,” she said. “[Art] make[s] us feel that we live in beauty and I think that is a real necessity for humanity.”
These public displays of color and texture have implications beyond the current crisis. “I think that public art and murals can do a lot to build and demonstrate community character and identity,” U-Heights’ Built Environment Community Relations Manager Katy Ricchiuto said.
Ricchiuto says that the public art coming in the U District is also an investment in representing the historic neighborhood’s identity. With a new light rail station and the UW’s campus expansion, more people will be traveling through the neighborhood and the murals can create an integral sense of place.
The unanswered question is, what will happen to these beautiful works of art when restaurants can reopen and remove the murals, most of which are temporary? Nakajima plans to auction off the murals for local charity to continue the loop of good-will from which the idea began.
Meanwhile, Haygood wondered, “How do we highlight this once we are ready to start processing? How do we document this?” Haygood said there may be a way for the city to host a public works show sometime in the future.
For now, in the face of an unknown and nebulous sense of tomorrow, Seattle’s murals are a symbol of unity. Like Nakajima said, “It’s brought people together. Everyone is on the same field.”
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more in the Apr. 29 - May 5, 2020 issue.