In early 2020, the novel Coronavirus, Covid-19, began spreading throughout the world. WA state was one of the first US areas to be hit by the pandemic causing virus, setting in motion a series of unprecedented events. Communities were required to shelter in place, mass hoarding of personal protection equipment and cleaning supplies began, businesses closed overnight, millions lost their jobs, and worse, the number of people who lost their lives continued to grow. At the time of this writing [July 2020] nearly 600,000 people have died from the virus worldwide, with just under 140,000 of them in the US alone.
Among all the darkness, and pain, and political division, there has been one thing that I found has helped me make sense of this truly upside-down time; painting murals for my community. Beginning in early April, many businesses started to board up their windows with plywood as a grim display of the impact of the quarantine our city (and nation) was experiencing. For better or worse, Seattle is a city of growth. It has life behind every wall and window. To see that life suddenly boarded up is a powerful and profound experience.
Seattle also used to have a lot more murals. However, many of those have started to disappear from our streets. On one hand, our architecture has changed– buildings are tall glass towers with little room for large pieces of art. On the other hand, the same growth that gives Seattle life has also presented many challenges for certain communities, including the artist community. A lot of the vibrant arts spaces of many years ago have been pushed further out of the city or have been spread thin due to gentrification. Murals themselves have started to become indoor fixtures of offices rather than public pieces. It has all been a bit disheartening. And yet, when I grabbed some stencils and a few cans, I suddenly saw the artist community rallying behind a common goal. Because of Covid-19, that dispersed group found a common place again; the streets. And with boarded-up businesses a bittersweet opportunity was afforded that allowed us to spread a message of hope, empathy, joy, frustration, or whatever else needed to be said.
The response has been encouraging. Not only from people on the street but businesses and fellow artists. We are all sharing a common tragedy. Painting these messages has helped me personally and I hope that they are helping others.
Many of the designs I used were repurposed stencils but with additional text to create a Covid-19 centric message. For instance, the “8PM MAKE A JOYFUL NOISE” refers to the evening ritual of shouting and banging pots, eg, out your window to celebrate healthcare workers during shift change. I also created the unique design of the person in a box specifically during this time period.
The social dynamics of painting the murals has been really fascinating. It’s really incredible that, for the most part, I did all this work without any permission. And yet, the response has been positive from both the people who own the business and the people who watch you paint. I even had police walk by and compliment the work while I was painting. I guess painting on temporary wood equals art but painting on anything else might be a somewhat different experience [eye roll]. In one case, I painted a mural and the business reached out to me to see if I would add more to it as they opened up for take out orders. They offered to pay me for the work. I accepted the commission and declined the payment. That’s what community is for.
The Covid-19 murals have been an important experience for me as our country continues to face the terrible realities of this pandemic. It has been very affirming that many people have had the message resonate with them in these trying times, and I’ve been thankful to share what I can with my community. I have had many really wonderful moments that have meant a lot to me as strangers have shared beautiful messages on the internet. But the in-person interactions have truly been the best. A group of folks brought me a tuna melt while I was working one day to say thanks, for instance. A young woman shouted at me when she saw me painting because she “recognized my work and was so happy to see me in person”. An older man showed me that his phone background was set to one of my murals. And I’ve had the opportunity to meet many incredible people who live and breath the arts. Covid-19 has been devastating, but it has brought me closer to my community than I thought possible.
See my work featured in The Guardian.