I shared a space for a while in the 619 Western building (RIP), back when it still housed huge numbers of artist studios. I produced more paintings during that time than any other. One night, a crew of graffiti artists invaded the building and filled the entire third floor hallway with murals. I’d always been drawn to graffiti — probably why I like living in cities — but after that night I began looking for tags everywhere: in alleys, on billboards, bridges, slabs of sidewalk. Even if I don’t like the mark, I always get excited about the energy it leaves. I like gestures of human spontaneity.
Graffiti is hard to parse. Its culture is secretive, its covert agents are of the everywhere/nowhere sort. There are rules and codes, and graffiti artists are expected to understand and observe them, but exactly what those rules are and who makes them are just as hard to pin down as the rest of graffiti culture. It’s vandalism, or it’s art, or it’s both — the debate rages on and I have no interest in arguing either side.
Graffiti came to Seattle by way of San Francisco and New York, where 1980s-era practitioners started tagging trains and then painting much larger, more complex pieces on the exteriors of the train cars. Their now iconic “wild style” is characterized by bold color schemes and complicated lettering that conveys a sense of movement and flow. Wild style pioneers such as Dondi, Zephyr and Twist bent, twisted and connected letters, creating 3D effects and adding little embellishments like arrows, bubbles and characters. (Read typography expert John D. Berry's story on the relationship between graffiti and typography.)
Wild style quickly took root on the west coast, where local artists replicated and innovated. The Seattle graffiti scene of the early 1990s was influenced heavily by New York, where lettering was king, and San Francisco, where graffiti grew more curves and characters. Seattle law enforcement played a role in the evolution of the local art form too.
The city enforces a strict no-graffiti policy. City crews paint out graffiti quickly, and vandals are tenaciously pursued and prosecuted. In response, Seattle graffiti artists simplified their styles and chose harder-to-access locations for their work, boldly scaling bridges, roofs and billboards. By using fewer colors and faster methods, Seattle taggers also paint more quickly.
The throw-up style of local artists such as Kerse, Tred, Dimes, Blink and Aerub, which requires just two colors — one for filling in letters and the other for outlining — became ubiquitous, along with more polished “pieces” that feature three or more colors and are more technically complex.
Alas, the more colorful, complex, illegal styles rarely last long. But in an ironic twist, graffiti artists are now being commissioned to create legitimate, graffiti-style paintings and murals around the city. In many cases, the artists are hired for the express purpose of creating something that will deter, well, graffiti. These legal murals are probably some of the best examples of Seattle graffiti styles. Here (see map above) are a few of the most notable.
VAIN Graffiti Wall, 2018 1st Avenue
Among downtown Seattle’s most enduring displays is this north-facing exterior wall of VAIN studios on 1st Avenue between Virginia and Lenora. Pieces painted by Sneke, Hews, Soul, and Myth, members of the DVS graffiti crew, currently fill the wall, which is repainted occasionally at the discretion of VAIN owner — and graffiti fan — Victoria Thomas Gentry. “A city neighborhood devoid of graffiti feels dead to me,” writes Gentry on the VAIN blog. The DVS pieces evoke the early styles of New York City’s subway artists (circa 1980s). Intricate lettering styles connect, overlap, flow into each other. Flourishes like arrows, spikes and cartoonish characters are common. This classic, old-school style is the foundation for everything graffiti has become today. The well-tended VAIN wall explodes with personal styles — vivid color, complex letterforms and impressive composition — that developed in an intensely competitive culture. The pioneers featured on the wall are graffiti legends, respected and copied by many.
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