Tariqa Waters and Martyr Sauce

Tariqa Waters landed in Seattle just a little over two years ago, and her splash has been notable. Effervescent and thoughtful, the DC native doesn’t hesitate to say what’s on her mind, whether in her work or in conversation. Her pint-sized gallery in Pioneer Square, called Martyr Sauce, literally consists of the street level foyer and staircase climbing up to her home—a second story suite of small business offices she and her husband Ryan have turned into an apartment.

Every First Thursday, Waters holds art openings at Martyr Sauce. Sometimes, when she has something to say, she’ll show her own work, but often the gallery features work by other local artists. The day we arrive to shoot, the work hanging in the gallery is her own: a gigantic oil painting of Andrew Jackson in a hot pink slave collar hanging on one wall and a mannequin posed at the top of the stairs. The mannequin is an installation Waters was in the middle of preparing while the Seahawks swept into Occidental Park—right across from her home—to set up their grand fete for the Sept. 4 game against the Packers. As fans and event producers came and went, she worked outside the gallery, painting the white mannequin black, dressing it up in an oversize hoodie and jeans.

“I was totally surprised by the amount of engagement,” she says. “All these bros were stopping and having conversations about what I was doing and what it meant.”

Now the mannequin stands at the top of the stairs inside, holding a skull in its hands. Projected across his body is footage of James Baldwin’s “Who Is the Nigger?” interview. Living and working in one of Seattle’s most densely trafficked neighborhoods, confronting the public head-on—artistically and with a dash of Martyr Sauce’s signature piss and vinegar and irreverence—is just another day in the life of the artist.

You can purchase bottles of the real deal: Waters Martyr Sauce. (The sauce itself is immaterial.)

A gallery on the stoop. Living in Pioneer Square can be a challenge, but Waters loves the hell out of it. “Somedays I could sure use a vacation from this place,” she says, laughing. “But it’s kind of like NYC: you don’t leave your borough. I’ve become like that old lady on the corner hanging out across the park, like “What they doing now? Cut it out!”

This June, Waters was commissioned by ARTSparks to make a temporary installation in Occidental Park, across the street from Martyr Sauce. Called, No I in Self, the installation consisted of a hallway of candy-colored plexiglass mirrors strapped up to trees. Each reflective surface came printed with a prefab hashtag encouraging selfies to be uploaded and tagged on Instagram and Twitter. The catch: the selfie-obsessed would unwittingly be photographing and transmitting the less photogenic aspects of the park—a heavily policed space frequently populated by transients and homeless people—as a backdrop. The installation backfired, or at least triggered some responses for which Waters wasn’t prepared. The morning after the big unveiling, the mirrors had come down, violently smashed and battered to shards. It was a discouraging failure on one hand, but publicity about the demolition sparked discusion about the needs of the park. Waters has continued to replace broken mirrors with new ones throughout the summer, and configured broken pieces into bouquets high up in the trees.

One of Waters’ oversize oil paintings. She has a penchant for pink. “If I could, I’d paint everything pink!””

The view out back: pink flamingos, splatter paint and skyscrapers. Waters’ two children helped decorate, but the flamingos were her idea.

Unsurprisingly, a little Guerrilla Girls action in Waters’ studio. The studio is small (a former office), yet Waters paints big. Though nearly every square inch is covered, she assures us it’s unusually bare right now—the calm before the storm, since she’s removing everything from Occidental Park in a few days, when the ARTSparks installation is officially finished. 

“I want big, but I can’t afford huge canvases, so I work on panels,” Waters explains as she shows us her current work in progress. “Panels are cheap but they also warp at this size, so I have to nail them to the wall to keep them straight until I can frame them. This is going to be Martha Washington. It’s just the underpainting. I started this a long time ago—before February when I got involved with the ARTSparks commission.”

Lipsticks (red, red, red) and a little inspiration. “Dorothy Dandridge is the sexiest lady ever. That kind of classy sexy. She had a little swag to her. They don’t have that anymore.”

“I have a tattoo of Frida on my forearm,” Waters says. “I got it in Atlanta where I thought I needed to have a woman nearby—an inspiration, a muse. There weren’t as many women artists there. There are so many women in the arts in Seattle, it’s a whole other thing. But because of this tattoo, ages ago people started giving me anything with Frida on it! Now I’m overrun with everything Frida.”

Waters’ husband, Ryan, is a guitarist. No, really: he plays for Prince and Sade. He has a wall of guitars to prove it. Also a wall of Star Wars paraphernalia and Breaking Bad figurines.

Martyr Sauce is located in Pioneer Square, 1/2 block east of 1st Ave on S. Washington Street, directly across from Occidental Park. Receptions on First Thursdays or open by appointment.