SODO Track

A few days ago, as I sped toward the SODO light rail station in a packed train car, a black and white tangle of geometric pattern exploded in the corner of my eye, snarling and unfolding, filling up the entire visual plane of the window. Suddenly a large doe, in lush, tawny, fully saturated, sprang out from the bramble of linework. I’d been surprised—visually ambushed—by the very thing I’d come to research: a series of artworks being unfurled along a two-mile track of industrial buildings in SODO. The project is called SODO Track, and it’s a small miracle for a city perpetually neutered of unsanctioned street art.

Fifty artists will paint 32 buildings over the course of three summers. What they’re calling Seattle’s “epic street-art corridor” will stretch two miles through SODO, located alongside either side of the light rail tracks. The project is spearheaded by 4Culture, Urban Artworks and SODO BIA (Business Improvement Area). The project’s public liaison and primary visionary is street art aficionado Tamar Benzikry-Stern, whose professional title with 4Culture is Public Art Project Manager for King County Partners and Consulting Clients. Over the past eight years she’s worked with 4Culture on many projects, with a passion for temporary public works and public art placed alongside and in concert with public transit.  

“We’re describing the entire two-mile stretch as an imaginative raceway of art in motion,” Benzikry-Stern says. “The artists have been tasked with playing with this idea of motion and progression, but [also] to be coherent, as viewers will literally be moving with the train. This is a pilot, to see what’s possible,” she says. “Ultimately, the hope for a lot of us is that this is a seed for a movement.”

As I described in my 2015 feature about Seattle’s street art scene, one culprit contributing to our dearth of street art is the fines leavied by the City of Seattle on businesses that don’t hire a clean-up squad to whitewash unsanctioned art, like graffiti and even some murals, within days of it appearing. SODO Track is an attempt to bring artists, businesses and the City together to proactively cover walls rather than blot them out with shades of gray.

For this project, 4Culture hired Portland-based artist Gage Hamilton as the planning artist to oversee the work. Hamilton spearheaded Portland’s popular Forest For The Trees, a non-profit that has sponsored annual mural festivals since 2013, wherein artists are commissioned to paint murals across the town over the course of a few summer days. For SODO Track, he researched similar immersive street art corridors around the country and the world—sites in Philadelphia where Steve Powers has produced similar themed artwork along train tracks, and the Wynwood neighborhood in Miami. He selected artists whose work would play well together, either flowing into one another at the seams or sometimes interweaving. Such is the case with Portland-based David Rice, whose deer I encountered springing from Canadian illustrator Ola Volo’s ornate, meandering geometries. 

Currently phase one of the project is fully underway, tackling the east side of 5th Avenue South between South Royal Brougham Way and S. Lander Street. Urban Artworks has been collaborating by giving a group of youth the chance to paint alongside international artists. Next year the project will extend to the west side of the track. 

Most murals were half-finished as I walked the corridor; some had yet to begin. While many artists post a projector across the street to provide a basic, blown-up outline of their piece, Seattle painter Mary Iverson is taking an old-fashioned route, armed with a level and tape, laboriously masking off sections by hand and filling them in with her bright bolts of color. The result is not so far off from her recent paintings of shipping containers, piled like children’s building blocks atop cargo ships, threatening to topple into the churning sea. Except here the shipping containers are absent: Only a starburst of abstract shapes and blocky colors fill the plane. Hers bleeds into a mural by local artists Casey Weldon and Syd Bee. At the moment, their mural comprises a field of deep purple speckled with bright pink marks that form the highlights of a majestic Mt. Rainier shrouded in blue shadow. Based on their sketch for the final piece, the mountain will be foregrounded with the silhouettes of dozens of screaming people. Overhead and above the mountain’s peak, the apocalyptic sky will be filled with… cats.

 “Originally we had in mind another design that was skewing a little dark,” Weldon says, laughing. “It was going to be raining cats and dogs—you know, a Seattle thing—but it never really rains cats and dogs here. Only half that. So we went with just cats. Syd and I both love cats.” 

It’s Weldon’s first large-scale mural, the first time he’s been on a boom or scissor lift. It’s all new to him. Iverson has made a few other murals in the past. 

“It’s skipping back to a point prior to my environmental themes,” she says. “In the past I worked mostly with purely abstract blocks of color, and that seems applicable to this site. I don’t think I’d want to paint a landscape on a wall, but this is a perfect opportunity to put colors and trapezoids abutted against each other.”  

Despite the resistance to landscape, foreshadowing Weldon and Bee’s massive mountain, there’s a tiny hint of Mt. Rainier peeping out of the upper left hand corner of Iverson’s piece. 

“Yeah, I guess there’s a little nature in there,” she admits. “The cool thing about a wall is you get the red next to the light red, and damn, you can’t get that on a canvas that’s normal size.” She glances over her shoulder, towards the west, and the industrial port sprawl just beyond the chain link fence. She’s in her element.

“I love that the port’s right there, with all its shipping containers. Also, the mountain’s right over there. Depending on which way you go, you see one or the other.”

Nearby, LA-based duo Cyrcle (David Leavitt and David Torres) are in the process of spraying a massive, graphic, black and white text piece that picks up where Weldon’s and Bee’s day-glo Rainier trails off. (I’ll leave it to you to discover what the Cyrcle piece says, a happily coincidental complement to raining cats.) Soon artists from Berlin will arrive to begin work on one massive wall, where the traces of a sloppy, sprawling fire-extinguisher tag currently cling. As I walk back to the SODO light rail station, I experience the transformation of a space. My eyes have been opened to entire slice of a city I’ve called home for 16 years, to which I’ve been blind for as long, until just now.

Join the creators of SODO Track for an opening event this Saturday, Aug. 6 from 6-9 p.m. at Metropolist (2931 First Ave. South, Suite A). Suggested donation is $20, which includes two drink tickets and a special guest musical performance.

Photos by Bruce Clayton Tom and Amanda Manitach