The big Black Lives Matter work of art on Pine Street that made headlines in June is now a permanent fixture in Seattle, at least for the next five years. Before Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, Takiyah Ward and Joey Nix, who are Seattle artists and community organizers, were pressing themselves to figure out how to create art that “spoke to the ills of the pandemic.”
Then police killed Floyd, and Ward and Nix were instantly inspired by the Black Lives Matter murals popping up in other cities — Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; Charlotte, North Carolina.
The artwork sprawls across a well-known thoroughfare that became the Capital Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP). It is painted on ground that had been the scene of violent clashes between the police and the people protesting police brutality and the police and state murders of Black people.
Designed during a summer of protest, the art is a reminder and call to action: The spark that was ignited should not be extinguished.
When artist Kimisha Turner received a text from Ward about forming the Vivid Matter Collective and asking which letter she’d want to paint, Turner jumped at the idea and claimed the slogan’s first letter, “B.”
Before the artists could start painting any of the 20-foot letters that June day urgently founding CHOP, rain started pouring down, conjuring a different slogan popular in Seattle: June-uary.
“It was beautiful because it cleansed the street for us,” Turner said. At 2 p.m., the clouds cleared, and sun warmed the concrete.
The 15 artists began painting, and the crowd at CHOP circled around them to watch and celebrate. Social media feeds lit up with the artwork, following the completion of each letter. By evening, aerial photographs of it had also stormed the internet.
“The energy was so vibrant and positive, even though there was so much chaos going on,” Turner said.
As electric as the atmosphere was, it was not easy to be at the center of thousands of watchful eyes, not to mention the threat of the lurking police prone to excessive force. “It felt both calming to be in my art zone, but it was also quite chaotic with all of the energy that was stirring just outside of our makeshift barriers,” Ward said.
The artists who detailed the work with thought-through designs, motifs and symbols laden with significance put in not only their dedication to the movement, to community and to art, but included their family legacies as well.
Turner brought her 8-year-old son to paint with her. “I know this is a moment I need to take part in, and my son absolutely needs to take part in, because memories are being created here.”
Two letters away from Turner, Angelina Villalobos painted a vibrant yellow-and-green “A” and mixed in her mother’s ashes with the paint. This felt right to do for the Seattle native, whose bonus daughter, sister and niece joined her to paint.
In many ways, this piece of protest is an intergenerational legacy, even as it is a recent development.
The work stood bright and full for a while — but within weeks of being painted, it began to wear and degrade. Until then, the work had been a ground-up community effort, but then Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) and Office of Arts and Culture (OAC) were called on to investigate what might be done to keep the paint on the ground longer. They began preliminary talks with the collective to discuss options. Long-term preservation, however, was not the preliminary goal at the time.
“I had kind of reconciled that this was a moment to take part in,” Turner said. “Because the moment was being documented and we got to experience it, that was more important at the time.”
The artwork had served a purpose: It was meant to capture a moment in time — a rising of consciousness and a call to action not from government and municipality, but from pure people power — a reflection of the broader Black Lives Matter movement itself.
But a botched preservation attempt would change the work’s course.
Undermining the movement
After CHOP dissolved, the artwork generated from the space was in the process of either being taken down by the city or documented by local cultural institutions, such as the Museum of Pop Culture. Vivid Matter Collective was in a first round of discussions with SDOT and OAC to preserve the painting in some shape or form.
“With the clearing of the CHOP, the city saw value in that mural and wanted to keep it and put up the protective barriers to keep automobiles from driving on it,” said Jason Huff, the OAC project manager lead.
In the midst of these negotiations, a local artist who was not part of the Vivid Matter Collective notified the city that he would be adding a clear coat of sealant to the already fading paint. According to artists, the city did not double check to make sure the man in question was actually part of the Collective before giving him a green signal to go ahead.
Overnight, the artwork was sealed using a clear coating process that would exacerbate its deterioration, as it was already separating from the roadway.
When the Vivid Matter Collective found out about the sealant and that the city had allowed this to happen without engaging with them first, they felt betrayed. Turner described it as a “gut punch,” especially coming from a fellow artist of color who was not unknown to the collective. “I personally felt that the message of BLM was being undermined. If our lives matter, that statement is all encompassing. And so when you then come in, for clout or whatever reason, disrespect this effort that we all put in hours of grunt work [for] to get some kind of notoriety, you are missing the message and now you are creating this negative energy and that is getting the attention when the attention should be on the message,” she said.
The city actors’ blasé attitude and oversight to check in with the collective only reified an ongoing pattern where city decision makers neglect the voices of Seattle’s Black and brown communities. Since many of the artists are also community activists, organizers and educators, this felt all too familiar.
“It’s abandonment, and no one came out to say anything about it. So, the mural means now we have to hold people accountable and hold them to a higher standard of behavior,” Villalobos said.
The whole situation, according to Ward, was “very sad” and prompted a new future for the artwork. “Because of the lapse in city oversight that led to the botch taking place, the conversation went from preservation to removal and repair,” Ward said.
The OAC staff wanted to rebuild trust and display accountability with the artists, so they worked to commission the artists for the repainting project, which would occur after SDOT prepped the street.
After three months of back and forth, planning and strategizing what material and methods could best preserve the paint for the long-term and drafting a contract, the Vivid Matter Collective waited for a dry spell in late September and early October before they began repainting — from scratch.
Dahvee Enciso almost begged his supervisor at SDOT, Sam Zimbabwe, to let him get involved with the street art’s second iteration. Well-versed in the technicalities of street painting and public art, Enciso not only had a barrel of knowledge and support to offer the artists, he also had the heart.
When he first met with the Vivid Matter Collective to talk through the botched repair incident and whether they might consider repainting, the collective said no.
Then Enciso broke the line between city employee and community member: “I told them, I’m going to be really selfish here, aside from me working for the city. That is a monument of when the movement began. We can’t let that just deteriorate. I want to bring my kids to this mural so they can pick up where you left off,” he said.
Vivid Matter Collective decided they would come back to recreate the work, this time closely with Enciso, who would ensure that the artwork would have a steady foundation and the protection needed to be preserved through the seasons for years to come.
Painting on the street is a different ballgame than a wall mural. There are many steps involved, and if they aren’t followed, the art will deteriorate. Enciso says that is what happened with the first iteration. He was asked to investigate how best to preserve it. After a lot of research, the best option seemed to be to completely remove the original work, prepare the ground and repaint.
The roadway there on Pine Street was too smooth for anything to bind to. Enciso compared the surface to “smooth river rock.” The SDOT construction crew had to “scarify” the surface, grinding each letter into the concrete so the paint would have something to stick to. All in all, the slogan would be 20 by 300 feet.
Next, crews blasted 60,000 psi of water, to strip away any impurities and chemicals from the letters’ boundaries, and followed that with a pressure wash. After the concrete dried, the construction crew applied white road paint of the kind used for sidewalks as a base coat to the letters. Then they applied a layer of latex paint so that the artist’s designs would pop. Enciso asked the artists to use five layers of paint — and after each coat, Enciso and his crew would throw a layer of synthetic crystals onto the wet paint. The crystals would be locked in when the paint dried, creating traction over the painting for pedestrians and bikers to easily move through.
The new artwork catches the eye like a bright and bold sticker, even more vibrant than the original. The actual process of painting a second time was, however, quite
different. According to Ward, the second iteration was a calmer experience, stretched out over a span of four days rather than fervor of one day in a densely populated CHOP.
It was also ruled by logistics rather than an organic, synergistic moment of inspiration, Turner said. She considered making changes to strengthen her design and added her parents’ ashes, following the lead of fellow artist Villalobos. Other artists added details or changed their layouts and colors completely.
While the new one resembles the former at first glance, it is a product of a different story and a point in time when the media and press have moved away from covering protests with the fervor of early summer.
“It’s a similar mural in a similar space; it’s not the same mural in the same space. So when we created it, it was at a time when people were feeling very passionate about Black Lives Matter and police brutality at the same time as other cities. Now it’s subsided, and we are struggling to make sure people don’t forget,” Villalobos said.
The story of the street art’s second life in Seattle is an example of what it takes for city departments to build trust with the broader civilian community and especially Black, Indigenous and brown communities that are constantly under-resourced.
Crediting Enciso and Huff, Ward said, “These two restored my faith in our ability to reach an equitable agreement with the city. It didn’t feel like us against the system — they humanized the experience. I hope this is the type of exchange all artists, all people can look forward to when working with the city.”
The artwork is now an inseparable part of Seattle’s history — an icon and hopefully a signpost ushering in systemic change for the region. As Enciso says, “I feel like that mural represents where change begins.”
Enciso has been changed by the movement and the artwork. It began when he received a mask handed out by artists during the second painting, each mask emblazoned with the name of someone who had been killed by police. There were no duplicates. When Enciso looked at his mask, George Floyd’s name was splayed across the front. When he put it on, something happened.
“There is something unspoken that begins to toil within you,” Enciso said. “Something starts moving and you are now in the midst, in essence of world changes and you start asking questions.”
The art will be preserved and maintained routinely, and future plans for it will be revisited in five years.
Street art can be a powerful tool to engage the public and make an impact within a short period of time. It is also easily accessible and requires no admission fee. Like Point Loma Nazarene University art history professor James Daichendt tells it, when cities move increasingly skyward and buildings are predictably designed, the aesthetic personality and messages of a city’s communities are lost. “Street art has the ability to highlight the voices and values of the folks who live in these neighborhoods. Whether it be through a Black Lives Matter mural or graffiti artist writing their name — the presence of these marks on these seemingly cool surfaces signal important issues and voices that are not reflected in our surroundings.”
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 Oct. 14-20, 2020 issue.