Seattle’s secretive graffiti world steps out of the shadows
by Lily Cutler
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.
3rd Avenue & Main Street (Pioneer Square)
When the company Poster Giant papered over a mural at 3rd and Main, outraged denizens of Pioneer Square, many of them artists, demanded retribution. A contrite Poster Giant provided all the supplies and two Seattle graffiti artists went to work. The result is a gallery of Seattle’s art muses, of sorts. The demure Asian female with the long dark hair, bangs and lip ring is the late Ana Dyson, aka Ana Bender, an influential musician and graffiti writer, and a close friend of the Seattle graffiti crew BTM. She passed away in 2012, and is memorialized here and in many places along the west coast. From any angle, this wall is awesome to behold. The story-high portraits are meticulously executed – yes, entirely with spray paint – in black, white and grey with fluorescent triangle accents.
On the far-right panel you’ll find an inscription from the artists: “Dedicated to the good people of Seattle.” If you look closely, there’s an emblem at the bottom-left corner of the dedication: Local 619, the symbol of the former tenants of 619 Western. (This empty building at 3rd and Main was once the home of Local 37, the largely Filipino Cannery Workers union, and the place where union leaders Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes were gunned down in 1981.)
Aurora & 47th
When I stopped at the SHOW LOVE mural to take a snapshot, a car pulled up right behind me and parked. A woman got out of the passenger seat and snapped a picture with her iPhone, just as I was doing. Then she asked me what the mural said. I told her what little I knew, or at least what little I’d heard: The owner of the building behind the fence got fed up with the constant proliferation of tags on the fence, which faces Aurora, so he commissioned a mural. The wall was done by Few & Far, a collective of female graffiti artists. The words "show love" are written in "wild style," famous for being hard to read, at least to the casual observer. But Few & Far infuse their lettering style with energy, movement and flow, without ever compromising legibility. I’m always impressed with graffiti that achieves that balance.
45th Avenue NE and 8th Avenue
Smack in the center of the University District, at 45th and 8th, you’ll find this muraled space on the backside of Artist & Craftsman Supply building. Colors bounce off the wall, clashing loudly with each other and with the surrounding collection of rotating pieces by artists Eras, Merlot, Clubs and others. The graffiti styles vary, as do the artists. At the north end of this wall, a woman’s face rendered in intricate detail is signed by Eras. None of the work is commissioned; the artists show up, check with staff to make sure it’s okay to paint and go at it. Walk around to the other side of the building and you’ll see more work in the adjacent parking lot. An employee told me that at A & C Supply they prefer characters to stylized lettering, but they allow the artists to paint whatever they want, so long as it’s family-friendly and appropriate for all ages.
65th Avenue and 7th Avenue
Adjacent to the Ballard Goodwill, in an overgrown, fenced-off lot, there is this wall. From left to right are the works of Video, Huemr and Weirdo. On the left, "Video" has signed his name in curvy blues and purples. In the center, "Huemr" leaps out from sunset reds, yellows and oranges. On the right, “Weirdo” is emblazoned in surreal, futuristic letterforms that seem to materialize out of a mist. Their marks may be indecipherable to some, but there is method to each type of madness. Each lettering style adheres to a unique set of rules, patterns and techniques. When you understand the conventions, the symbols, the letters, become more apparent and recognizable.
Is there a piece of graffiti you love — or hate? We’d love to hear about it in the Comments area below. Or send a photo to firstname.lastname@example.org.