COVID and Black Lives Matter brought an explosion of street art to Seattle. But graffiti was already having a moment

This image is currently not available
1 of 6 The King County Archives in the Central District are a year-round graffiti gallery, thanks to the annual Off the Wall mural battle organized by the nonprofit 206 Zulu. This year’s Off the Wall, on Aug. 29, is being livestreamed due to coronavirus concerns. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
This image is currently not available
2 of 6 A mural by Angelina Villalobos (known as 179) and members of MAD Krew at 13th Avenue and East Fir Street near Washington Hall. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
This image is currently not available
3 of 6 Graffiti walls like this one, near Georgetown, are like vibrant, chaotic museums where the artists are the curators and nearly every surface is a potential canvas. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
This image is currently not available
4 of 6 A light rail train speeds by a mural by Low Bros, a duo of artist brothers from Berlin, along the the 2 miles of murals — many by local and international graffiti artists — along SODO Track. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times, 2018)
This image is currently not available
5 of 6 In 2017, Crick Lont (known as Dozer) had an opportunity: a Beacon Hill warehouse scheduled for demolition and a bunch of graffiti artists in town for a festival — so he threw a painting party. Three years later, the warehouse is still standing — but no longer hosts regular events, due to the pandemic. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
This image is currently not available
6 of 6 Sneke was one of Seattle’s graffiti pioneers, starting in South Seattle in the early 1980s and becoming a fixture in the scene. This piece is legal, and he says his guerrilla painting days are long behind him. “I got a wife and two kids,” he said. “If they ever have to bail me out of jail for graffiti, please somebody come punch me in the mouth.” (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

To some, graffiti will never be anything more than a nuisance and, occasionally, a menace.

For the rest of us, who regard graffiti with curiosity, confusion and/or admiration, summer is the season for discovery. Even during normal years, the long days and lingering twilights invite trips through Seattle’s most chaotic museum, where the artists are the curators, every surface is a canvas and the city of Seattle’s graffiti rangers (actual job title) hustle to keep it blank.

But this is not a normal year.

How to look at graffiti

First came the pandemic and its acres of plywood, where people were invited (or invited themselves) to paint, as if the city had broken a bone and we all signed the cast.

Then came summer’s protests with their explosions of paint turning the walls and pavement into a record of people’s hopes, dreams and rage.

Even to non-connoisseurs, graffiti became more than just urban wallpaper. Suddenly, all of it — legal and illegal — felt more immediate and urgent.

But even before all that, the art on Seattle’s streets was having a moment.

Read more

The graffiti writer known as Merlot began painting around Seattle in 2005, moved to Chicago in 2015, then came back this April — the graffiti had gotten better.

“Before, the focus felt more like bombing [tagging] … quick, simple freeway shots in black and white,” she said. “But I’ve started seeing a lot of people incorporating color and doing pieces [more elaborate work]. Even on freeway spots, there’d be pieces, like people were starting to care a little more what their stuff looks like.” (Merlot, like some other artists in this story, declined to share her full name fearing problems with law enforcement.)

This image is currently not available
A mural by local graffiti artist Merlot in a small, upstairs room at Dozer’s Warehouse on Beacon Hill, a Seattle haven for graffiti artists. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

What changed? There are theories. Merlot thinks Instagram has something to do with it — even if your piece in Seattle gets buffed tomorrow, it can live forever, from Paris to Tokyo, on the internet.

Graffiti artist Graves (Desmond Hansen) suspects it’s a maturation thing: His generation grew up and now they’re the small-business owners and public officials with more influence over what walls should look like. (According to the Seattle Municipal Code, small-business and other property owners are responsible for cleaning up unwanted graffiti within 10 days or they face a $100 per day fine. A spokesperson for Seattle Public Utilities said no property owners were fined for this violation in 2019.)

Even Detective Christopher Young, the Seattle Police Department’s graffiti investigator from 2011 to 2019, senses improvement — in part, he says, because the city’s homelessness crisis has bumped graffiti enforcement down the priority list, giving artists more breathing room. (When caught, writers of illegal graffiti are often charged with property damage and/or malicious mischief, which can be a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the damage; punishments range from community service and fines to over a year in jail.)

“The mere fact of having a graffiti detective hearkened back to a kinder, gentler time in law enforcement,” he said. “Some criminals still get a thrill bashing other people’s property, but some of them are really talented. It’s a new era. The graffiti at CHOP [the Capitol Hill Organized Protest]? Wow. I’m not happy they ran us out of the precinct, but the art was impressive.”

Longtime graffiti artist Specswizard (Michael Hall), who began writing around the city in 1982, has watched Seattle graffiti rise and fall and rise again.

“The bombers, the more concept-based graffiti with a professional vibe, I dig all of it,” he said. “I like reading the walls. It’s part of my language. It lets me know there’s people around.”

Seattle is enjoying an especially rich moment for graffiti and street painting: Here are four portraits of people who helped contribute, from the 1980s to last month.

The curator: Khazm Kogita

This image is currently not available
Khazm Kogita, also known as King Khazm, is an emcee and director of 206 Zulu, the hip-hop-influenced nonprofit which, among other things, organizes Off the Wall — an annual mural competition that has painted the buildings of the King County Archives complex in the Central District. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Graffiti comes and goes, but one of Seattle’s most enduring canvases is the King County Archives complex in the Central District — just a half-block from Washington Hall, home of the hip-hop-based community nonprofit 206 Zulu.

For the past 10 summers, 206 Zulu has hosted Off the Wall, a friendly graffiti battle with cash prizes — and, in prepandemic years, a block party — on the archives buildings. (This year’s Off the Wall is Aug. 29 and will be livestreamed at facebook.com/206universal.)

The murals linger after the party’s over: classic “wild style” lettering; weird fantasias (a woman wearing a horned skull helmet, a golden jaguar breaking a chain with a roar); science fiction juxtapositions (silver waterfalls and lush greenery surrounding shiny, metallic, futuristic letters).

Khazm Kogita, founding director of 206 Zulu, helps choose which artists get to paint for Off the Wall — and has deep graffiti roots. Before joining the nonprofit world, he was a member of MAD Krew, a mid-1990s graffiti and hip-hop collective started by friends at Franklin High School.

Kogita grew up in South Seattle and has used a wheelchair since childhood — a car crash resulted in a serious spinal injury. He says art was his way of navigating through both his and his neighborhood’s struggles; MAD (short for “madness after dark”) Krew was a grounding force.

“Lots of gangbanging was prominent then, and we were not saints by any means, doing a lot of stupid stuff, but trying our best to stay away from the violence and gang life,” he said. “We’d run around the streets and do graffiti. That was our positive outlet.”

Kogita’s injuries made spray painting difficult — his specialty was guerrilla stickers. On a typical night, which could last until dawn, they’d set a course to go bombing through the streets, initially starting in Georgetown, then venturing north to the Chinatown International District, eventually pushing their way downtown. That’s where they discovered Westlake Park.

“It was a golden age of graffiti,” he said. “Anytime day or night, you’d find dozens of people: skaters, graffiti writers meeting to go on missions, break dancers, rap cyphers.” (A cypher is a circle of performers freestyling.)

Graffiti is one of the four elements of hip-hop (DJing, emceeing, graffiti writing, break dancing) and MAD Krew did it all. In 2003, some members joined the international grassroots group Universal Zulu Nation and founded 206 Zulu, the Seattle chapter.

Today, 206 Zulu offers a range of youth programs (music, filmmaking, dancing), but graffiti stays central in Kogita’s heart.

“A lot of people live their lives and are never heard,” he said. “Graffiti is a way for somebody to leave their mark and have some sort of legacy — especially people who are socially awkward and don’t want to rap on a stage or break dance in large groups. They still need that platform, where they can be secluded but still be seen.”

The professional: Angelina Villalobos

This image is currently not available
Graffiti artist Angelina Villalobos, also known as 179, works on her mural for SODO Track in 2018. (Courtesy of Wiseknave)

Angelina Villalobos, known as 179, was drawn to graffiti for that very reason — being seen while remaining hidden.

Villalobos also grew up in South Seattle in a multiethnic family: Black, Japanese, Filipino, Mexican. “Our family potlucks are delicious,” she said. “But we’re mostly artists.”

Her upbringing was Catholic and traditional with fixed ideas about gender roles.

“Our grandfather told us: ‘Marry a Navy man, marry a serviceman, and have lots of Mexican babies,’” she said. “My sister and I were like, ‘Hell no!’”

But Villalobos wasn’t quite ready to say that out loud: “I was a shy and quiet kid, didn’t want to ruffle feathers.” Then she found hip-hop and started break dancing, doing spoken word and fooling around with graffiti.

“That was like: ‘Oh, I can combine anime cartoon drawing with something a little bad,’” she said. “I needed something at the time, but didn’t want to vocalize needing it, and with the anonymity of graffiti — I could become a superhero almost.”

Like Kogita, she went to Westlake with friends, heading into the city to paint and slap stickers she’d made on warehouses and buildings. At the time, Villalobos was drawing critiques of Catholicism, including the character Germbot — a mischievous version of Baby Jesus with tattoos and a cigar.

She used the name Angel 179 (“I thought it sounded fresh and sharp”) but was disappointed when overhearing people, who didn’t know she was the artist, talking about her work: “Pretty good for a girl.

Villalobos wanted people to see her message, not her gender, so she dropped Angel and became 179. It worked — people started talking about her as an artist, not as “a girl.”

In 2006, Villalobos got her first paid gig, painting dragon figures (a lifelong motif) on a fence at The Hangar Cafe in Georgetown. Around the same time, she became a businesswoman, co-founding Art Primo — an online company selling European spray paint and supplies.

Why European?

“American spray paint companies basically forsook graffiti in the ’90s,” she said.

After an outcry about graffiti in the 1970s and ’80s, U.S. companies like Krylon and Rust-Oleum severely limited their color palettes and valve systems, making cans less attractive to artists. It was as if art supply stores only sold six colors of paint and one size of paintbrush. European manufacturers were happy to meet the demand and entrepreneurs like Art Primo started selling the products.

Now Art Primo has a Capitol Hill storefront and Villalobos has murals all over the city, including one at SODO Track, a 4Culture-sponsored project that invited local and international artists to paint 2 miles of walls in Sodo. This summer, she’s headed to Flint, Michigan, for a mural festival she’s wanted to attend for years.

“It’s interesting — now everybody knows who I am,” she said. “It’s not a secret anymore. Now I’m comfortable using my first and last name.”

Villalobos still paints dragons, but a lot of her work has a lush, vegetative quality — like the “A” she painted this summer in the Black Lives Matter mural on East Pine Street at CHOP.

“The leafy shapes are like: Even in concrete and steel, nature finds a way,” she said. “You can put us in rigid conditions, but we will prevail.”

The pioneer: Sneke

This image is currently not available
Seattle graffiti artist Sneke painted a small self-portrait in a detail of his mural, at 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street in the Chinatown International District, made with Geneva-born artist Tones. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)

In the summer of 1983, a 13-year-old South Seattle kid named Sam tuned the family television to PBS and saw a movie that would change his life — the hip-hop documentary “Style Wars,” starring graffiti writers and B-boys (break dancers) in New York City.

Soon, that kid would grow up to be the renowned graffiti writer and B-boy known as Sneke.

As soon as the movie ended, Sneke tried a little breaking on the carpet and, in the next few months, found other kids trying their moves at the gym, and tracing pictures from a copy of the photography book “Subway Art” they passed around.

“That changed the whole trajectory of my life,” Sneke said. “Before that, I was straight-up into heavy metal and hard rock — most kids I knew were white, listening to Judas Priest and AC/DC. But I’m Black, I’m mixed race, and started meeting kids doing this who were also people of color. Maybe that’s why it took me the way it did.”

Sneke kept breaking and writing through the ’80s, meeting others at the McDonald’s on Third Avenue downtown, or at the Seattle Center Mural Amphitheater. “Writers would get up on stage, there’d be B-boy battles,” he said. “There was a lot of graffiti, almost all of it illegal, almost all done by people of color.”

But in the late ’80s, something shifted.

“The crack epidemic started hitting in ’87, ’88,” he said. “A lot of these guys were poor, living in the projects, and started selling dope and gangbanging — trace that to systemic racism and the drugs put in those inner cities and the damage it did to families and everybody.”

Some writers started to fall away: going to jail, getting killed, becoming addicted. Graffiti slowed down for a few years, he said; then young white artists started to fill the vacuum.

Sneke had a run with crack himself, then got clean, and kept painting through it all. In 1992, he and a friend ducked into an abandoned steam plant in South Lake Union for Sneke’s first big piece: letters, which he considers the only thing that can be properly called graffiti. “Graffiti, by definition, is letters on a wall,” he said. “Characters are secondary.” (That is a subject of much debate: Is graffiti only letters? Is it only the illegal stuff? Does it have to be spray paint? Does an illegal, wheat-pasted poster count? Ask 10 artists and you’ll get 10 different answers.)

Things took off from there. Sneke painted walls and trains, eventually asking building owners’ permission to paint on their walls, as well as landing the occasional commission. In 2017, he was also invited to paint for the SODO Track.

Despite his stature in the graffiti scene, Sneke still sometimes finds it tricky to get permission to paint — in part because he’s Black.

“When I walk in, I get pigeonholed immediately,” he said. “I can see it in their eyes. Sometimes I send in a white person to get a graffiti wall — they can do more with their genes than I can with a three-piece suit.”

The climber: Ezra Dickinson

This image is currently not available
“You Are Not Alone,” a COVID-plywood mural for the Capitol Hill bar Life on Mars, is one of Ezra Dickinson’s more accessible works. His other paintings and stickers can be more abstract, and often hidden in difficult-to-find places only a few people will accidentally find. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)

Ezra Dickinson is a climber: bridges, fire escapes, telephone poles, trees, drainage pipes, even the “heavens,” the graffiti term for that precarious-looking scaffolding holding highway signs far above the pavement.

“A predominant focus for me is 8 feet and above,” he said. “Getting to locations where you look and think: ‘I don’t know how that person got up there.’”

Some climbers write in daredevil places for the fame (it’s impressive, and it’s likely to last longer because inaccessible surfaces are harder to buff), but Dickinson suspects some of his soaring work won’t be found until years afterward, and then only by a few: mostly by maintenance workers and other graffiti writers.

“I do things that other people might see as risky, but I’m very careful, very methodical,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt myself because I practice other forms of art that depend on my body.”

Besides being a graffiti artist, Dickinson is also a professionally trained dancer who’s performed in many venues: On the Boards, Velocity Dance Center, Baryshnikov Arts Center (New York), Donaufestival (Austria).

Dickinson started tagging in his early teenage years — and training at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Every day, he’d go to public school, then ballet school, then roam the city, tagging at night. He got caught a few times — once landing in Whatcom County Jail for 20 days with a $5,000 fine — but it didn’t deter him.

“The root of it is just a joy and a practice,” he said. The city feels richer, he explained, when you know its ledges, climb its telephone poles like coconut trees and wander through decaying industrial buildings that have become graffiti galleries.

“In America, and Seattle’s no different, we default to media advertising as the acceptable space-filler,” he said. “The idea that something creative could be put there — something that’s not trying to get you to buy something or tell you how good or bad you look — is labeled an outlaw act. A lot of graffiti artists are grappling with that: How do we get the public to realize they’re completely inundated with advertising and to give street artists a chance?”

The pandemic, he hopes, has made people a little more open to street art in general — there’s more paint on the walls than usual and there’s no outcry. Maybe, he says, this will inspire the city to designate free walls where artists can hone their skills, upping their chances for more and better legal commissions.

Not all of Dickinson’s work is hard to find: He painted a few COVID murals on Capitol Hill, including “you are not alone” for the bar Life on Mars.

“During COVID, people have had time and space to realize how artists shape the environment around them, how it feels,” he said. “We’ve never had a showing like this in our city before. It’s pretty monumental.”

The message: CHOP and the precinct wall

This image is currently not available
Graffiti on the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct building left over from CHOP (the Capitol Hill Organized Protest). After ending CHOP’s 22-day occupation, the city painted over most of the graffiti on public property — but let some remain. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)

In 2020, Seattle Public Utilities budgeted $1,056,000 for its graffiti rangers to keep public walls blank.

In early July, they had a big job: the Seattle Police Department’s precinct building on Capitol Hill. For 22 days in June, it had looked like a graffiti garden in springtime.

After police abandoned the building during sustained protests for Black lives, abdicating the area to what would come to known as CHOP, color sprouted for blocks around — especially against the East Precinct’s west wall, facing an alleyway.

Among the sights: portraits of George Floyd, a police car on fire, anarchy signs, “Black trans lives matter,” an incongruously small and tender oil portrait of a Black face looking pensively skyward, traffic cones billowing smoke, “Bezos is a soy boy” and much more.

When police descended on CHOP at 5 a.m. July 1, the city executed three immediate priorities: rout the protesters, secure the perimeter with yellow police tape, buff the graffiti. Within hours of the first arrests, graffiti rangers were painting.

But a few weeks later, walking past the precinct’s alley, some of the graffiti (the mellower marks) lingered: “Unity Diversity Freedom,” “Big Floyd*BLM*4 Eva,” a masked figure with the words “you have the right to remain heard.”

Why were they kept?

“This is such an important movement right now, I don’t know why we would ever want to cover that up,” said Erika Lindsay of the city’s Office of Arts & Culture, which — at Mayor Jenny Durkan’s request — consulted with police and other city officials about which precinct graffiti to buff and which to leave.

“I’m Black,” Lindsay said. “For me, this is about human rights in our country, and I would say our office and most others stand with that. So erasing that, taking that away? No.”

Usually, graffiti is a one-way form of communication. But “Big Floyd*BLM*4 Eva” and the other paintings took on a fresh dimension — they started as vandalism of a police precinct, a message from protesters to the city. The city left them up as a message back: We hear you.

Graffiti artists are skeptical about the sincerity of that message (some suspect it’s an empty political gesture), but they’re still surprised. People use graffiti to talk to each other and the city; now the city is using graffiti to talk back.

“Graffiti is definitely communication,” said the revered, longtime graffiti artist Specswizard.

“It’s how you let people know — we’re out here. We exist.”

Brendan Kiley: bkiley@seattletimes.com; Brendan Kiley is a Seattle Times features reporter.