Artists fill the bleak streets of a locked-down Seattle with vibrancy and life

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This story was originally published by the Seattle Times on July 19, 2020

IN MANY WAYS, it looked to be a Spartan spring.

Throughout Seattle’s now-deserted commercial districts — including Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square, Belltown and Ballard — shop and restaurant owners shuttered their plate-glass windows and doors with protective plywood panels after Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 23 “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order to slow the coronavirus.

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There was no telling how long the panels would remain during the pandemic, but once-colorful and -vibrant streets were left hollowed out and drained of purpose. Raw wood surfaces offered tempting targets for graffiti and taggers. Yet where some saw bleakness, others saw opportunity.

Muralist and sign painter VK recalls the shock of seeing First Avenue south of Yesler after the governor’s order. Within hours, graffiti had materialized haphazardly on the panels. “My first thought,” he says, “was, ‘We’ve got to get down there and paint some murals.’ ”

All across Seattle, great minds were thinking alike. Kathleen Warren, artist and director of Overall Creative, working alongside the Alliance for Pioneer Square, the Ballard Alliance, the Broadway Business Improvement Area and the Downtown Seattle Association, put out a call for artists to submit proposals for mural art. The response was huge.

Belltown Pizza owner Doug Lee made a similar plea on Facebook and almost overnight was inundated with offers from more than 200 artists.

Adding to the mix, several business owners independently contracted with muralists to cover plywood with color.

In the weeks to come, murals reimagined and reinvigorated the empty streets. Some works were by established artists, others by street artists who cut their teeth on graffiti.

The response proved as varied as might be expected from random humans facing times of turmoil. “Art is not about providing answers,” says Wakuda, another muralist, “but asking the right questions.”

Anne Siems, a prominent Northwest artist whose gallery show had just ended in February, had never painted a mural. The large format both intrigued and unnerved her. “Covering an entire wall with art is kind of like a cave painting,” she says. “It has an inherent power that can draw us in with beauty.”

From comfort and comedy to biting commentary and remonstration, the new murals recalled the past, reflected the present and affirmed the future.

As Inslee’s restrictions lift, the murals’ fate is up for grabs. Entering the next phase of pandemic response, many businesses have removed the painted plywood and put the art into storage. Some have postponed removal or incorporated the panels into their businesses. Other murals already have been sold to private collectors.

But the muralists continue to paint the town.

A new wave of political art is on the rise, embracing and illustrating this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. As our city confronts the canvas of an uncertain future, both art and artists will be on hand to help us ask the right questions.