Joe Martinez wants to see every available surface become a legal canvas. So he started with the wall by his father's sign shop. It was plagued by what he called "bad graffiti" — sloppy sprays by vandals in the night.

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Joe Martinez wants to see every available surface become a legal canvas.

So he started with the wall by his father’s sign shop. It was plagued by what he called “bad graffiti” — sloppy sprays by vandals in the night.

“There’s nothing pretty to look at except for one or two trees within a three-block radius,” said Martinez, about the Georgetown area the shop resides in. In fact, the community’s focal point is a concrete factory.

Now the wall — 160 feet wide by some 15 to 18 feet tall — is masked by flashy figures. There’s an owl popping out of a nest, dragons flying, koi swimming and even a bust of Socrates — all surrounded by stylized graffiti lettering.

Altogether, Martinez gathered 14 artists of different backgrounds, with grassroots hip-hop organization 206 Zulu helping to spread the word. The project — which will be officially unveiled Sunday — has beautified a small corner of the city, built relationships between usually solitary artists and may even change the way passers-by view graffiti.

Building bridges with a wall

There are few legal graffiti walls in Seattle, so many veteran graffiti artists, such as Michael Hall, aka SPECSONE, were hungry to paint.

“They liked the idea of getting the graffiti community together … unifying the community,” said Martinez, a 28-year-old deejay/producer/promoter.

Many of the artists paint professionally and usually charge per square foot. So, a mural of this size could cost around $150,000. But for this wall, they volunteered their time and services while the shop provided meals and paint. In total, it took over three months to organize and finish.

“I’ve become much more of a bridge builder; before I think I was much more of a bridge burner,” said Martinez, in organizing the project. “There’s no way I could have gone into this guns blazing and order everyone around, especially 14 artists much more accomplished than I am.”

The wall was divided into about eight sections, and the artists were divvied up into teams. Aerosol art is usually a solitary trade, so many had never worked with or even seen each other before.

“I’ve always written solo,” said a 28-year-old Seattle artist simply known as Nko, who — even standing on crutches due to a shattered heel — sprayed for a week and a half, day and night. “It was a real experience in building community for me.”

It was the first time Nko met artist Angelina Villalobos, who is helping Seattle hip-hop group The Blue Scholars with its upcoming video and EP cover. Since then, the pair has coordinated many exhibits together. Villalobos, 25, said she was lucky to get the chance to work with such talented artists. She filled in the spots between sections with dragons and koi, using acrylic house paints.

A new view of graffiti

Daniel Kogita, chairman of 206 Zulu, calls the mural the Zulu Wall of Unity. But in addition to bringing artists together, the wall is intended to dispel some stereotypes about graffiti.

“I’m not someone who is going to destruct a bunch of property. You’re not going to see me writing on churches or doing anything stupid,” said Sam Wallis, aka Solace, who painted an 18-foot-man, purposely big to humble onlookers. He hopes the wall will “change people’s minds to see [graffiti] more as art than something destructive.”

Other artists included Danny Melbihess, Joe Nicholl and Jeff Jacobson. Last year, they established a mural company called the Writers Union and have painted 20 walls for various shops, plus others for the Microsoft campus, the Red Bull Soapbox Race and the Capitol Hill Arts Center.

Their section of the wall depicts a deer jumping out of graffiti lettering. Jacobson said it combines the urban aspect of the city with nature.

So far, neighbors have responded favorably to the wall, so much so that Martinez is negotiating with another owner to do something similar in the spring.

But if vandals attack the wall, Martinez is conflicted about fixing it.

“I’d like to protect it, but at the same time if it does get vandalized, it gives us an opportunity to do new things and let it evolve over time,” said Martinez.

Marian Liu: 206-464-3825 or