A&E Pick of the Week
Welcome back to Arts & Entertainment Pick of the Week, in which our writers share some particularly interesting events, shows or something else that caught their eye.
The first-ever Street Hues: Seattle Urban Art Tour assembled in front of Washington Hall, a 1908 brick landmark in the Central District, on a sunny Sunday morning recently.
We were about a dozen people, ranging from graffiti connoisseurs to know-nothings, with most of us somewhere in between — plus two tour-guides-to-be there for training purposes — and had come to look at graffiti/street art/urban art in the Central District and the Chinatown International District.
Our guide: King Khazm, aka Khazm Kogita, founding director of the nonprofit 206 Zulu, which uses the five elements of hip-hop (DJing, MCing, graffiti, breaking, knowledge) as its vehicle for youth and community programs.
“I am happy to share the highly visible yet very underground world of graffiti,” Khazm told the group. He started with a quick history of Washington Hall (originally a boardinghouse for Danish immigrants, it’s also had a colorful career as an event venue, featuring Billie Holiday, Marcus Garvey, Jimi Hendrix, David Byrne, Mark Morris and many others) and the origins of graffiti (New York, specifically the Bronx, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, initially popular on subway cars because they moved your art around the city).
Then we were off.
The Street Hues tour is presented by a travel agency, Global Family Travels, in conjunction with three nonprofits: 206 Zulu, Experience Education and Urbanists. Its organizers represent a wide variety of constituents — no matter which one you belong to, here are four things to consider if you take the trip.
1. Look deeply and ask questions. As it finds its footing, Street Hues will feature a rotating crew of tour guides, each with a different expertise and emphasis. When it comes to graffiti, and its role in Seattle life, there’s a lot of territory to cover: the history and context of its rise, artistic techniques, street ethics of where and when to paint (and how those rules get broken), subject matter, its dual function of communication and expression. But this is your opportunity to get close to the art with an expert at your elbow. Take it. Curious how this artist achieved a distinct shading effect? Wonder why (or how) that artist might have painted in a particular spot? Want to know what those intricate letters say, or what they might mean, or whether that was the work of one artist or several? Ask away.
2. Expect improvisation. Graffiti, by its nature, is ephemeral — new stuff goes up, old stuff comes down. Case in point: One of Seattle’s reliable graffiti archives used to be the King County Archives complex just across the street from Washington Hall, where 206 Zulu hosted the annual Off the Wall mural competition (with King County’s permission) for over a decade. Its gorgeous murals had been easy to find and admire, but a big chunk of that complex was recently sold and demolished, so the Street Hues tour had to adjust. But this improvisation can bring gifts. If you see something interesting that’s not technically on the tour (in an alleyway, at a streetcar stop, wherever), sing out. Again, this is your chance to learn.
3. Entertain different points of view. Just a few minutes into the first Street Hues, one tour-group member said he worked with people who had to clean up graffiti, so he was curious how one person’s nuisance could be another person’s art. “What if I get really good at breaking into cars and call myself an artist?” he said. “I’m interested in the use of that word, ‘artist.’” It felt like a mild provocation, of the familiar I’m-just-asking-the-question variety, but Aaron Santiago — a Street Hues tour-guide-in-training — picked up the gauntlet. “If you develop a really dope way of breaking into cars and steal them from your neighbor, you’re an [expletive],” he said, which segued into a discussion about graffiti-world ethics (don’t hit churches, schools, community centers, etc.) and what happens when people transgress those norms. Moral of the story: If you’re a graffiti lover, come prepared to meet people who aren’t, and vice versa. If everyone stays cool, it can be an opportunity for interesting exchange.
4. If you’re not familiar with graffiti, consider a little light homework. Typically, art/movie/book critics don’t look at something and stop with the questions, “Do I like it?” or “Do I approve?” That would be a crushingly boring way to approach art. Instead, they examine the details, think about how and why it was made, consider the piece both as a world unto itself (what is this thing?) and as part of a wider world (how does this thing relate to other things around it?). Before joining a Street Hues tour, you might look at the graffiti near you — your neighborhood, on your way to work, whatever — with the same eyes. Once you start noticing details, questions might emerge. Bring those questions with you to the tour.
It will enrich your experience.