In the city—especially in dense, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods like Capitol Hill—the streets are packed with so much visual information that you simply can't begin to take it all in. Walk anywhere on Capitol Hill, and your line of sight will pass over an impossible amount of information—posters touting band names you've never seen before and will never see again, dance nights at clubs you'll never visit, ads for tech start-ups promising the solution to the "problem" of lunch, and inscrutable graffiti all jostling for attention.
This morning, as I walked toward The Stranger's offices, my eye hooked on a poster, way high up on a telephone pole at 11th and Pike. As near as I can tell, the poster hadn't been there yesterday. Maybe it wouldn't be there tomorrow. But the starkly moral black and white, splashed with a spray of radioactive pink, demanded my undivided attention. It resembled an ad for bug-killer Raid, with the word "Paid" overlaid on the familiar black chevron logo. In messy all-caps scrawl, the poster read "TECH MONEY KILLS QUEER CULTURE DEAD!" Off to the side, a finger—so cleanly cartoonish that it could be lifted directly from a sanitized 1950s comic book—pushes down on the nozzle of a can of Paid, which sprays hot pink onto the words "QUEER CULTURE."
In the complex economics of street art, a transaction had taken place, but it turned out to be a complicated one. The same elements that make the medium effective as agitprop—brevity, simplicity—also raised questions that the poster left unanswered. By using the Raid analogy, is the artist— John Criscitello, as it turns out, the creator of the marvelous "WOO Girls" series of posters you can find all around the Hill—arguing that the ever-spreading rash of condos and mixed-use developments, with their feverish pursuit of young wealthy tech employees, is actively driving queer culture to extinction? But isn't he also equating queer culture with cockroaches? Why is tech money, in particular, so bad for queer culture? What can be done?
The Paid poster is part of #CapHillPSA, a collection of posters made by local artists addressing the issue of public safety on Capitol Hill. A press release suggests the campaign was intended by organizers Courtney Sheehan and Yonnas Getahun to "demonstrate the role art can play in shaping personal reflection and community action." As the name suggests, it's less an art show and more a propaganda campaign, as demonstrated by Ken McCarty's red-and-black poster displaying a close-up of the barrel of a handgun with the words "STOP THE VIOLENCE" printed on top. It's purely political, a simple message that wouldn't be out of place in a church basement or a school hallway.
Most of the work in #CapHillPSA demonstrates a bit of political cartoon DNA tossed in too, with a plucky juxtaposition between words and pictures. Christian Petersen's poster reads "ALLDICKHEADS-SHOULDFUCKOFF," with a smiley face in place of the o in "should." Meng Yu's poster shows a popped-collar douche rendered in soft neon colors, with the words "Welcome to the neighborhood AGRO BRO" drawn over his turquoise hair. A couple of the works, like Jite Agbro's gorgeous moody moonlit landscape or Shogo Ota's prickly hairy-chested figure wearing a vicious-looking spiky bustier, are a little more ambiguous and a lot more visually rewarding.
All the posters, following the prime directive of 21st-century public relations, are branded with a #CapHillPSA hashtag. That necessary abbreviation of Capitol Hill is unfortunate, given that the public art battle over Capitol Hill erupted last April when a Jägermeister ad on the side of the liquor store at 12th and Pine earned universal scorn when it urged the weekend party crowd to "RELIVE THE NIGHT YOU BECAME LEGENDS ON CAP HILL." Internet commenters and poster artists latched on to that "Cap Hill" as a symbol that the ad was created by intruders; no real Capitol Hill resident, they argued, would ever refer to it as Cap Hill. Dax Ed Word Anderson responded to the ad with a fleet of posters using the same visual language but urging prospective Jägermeister drinkers to remember the night "YOU WERE AN ASSHOLE ON CAP HILL," or when "YOU WERE A BIGOT," or homophobic, or racist, or violent.
The public art war escalated quickly. Criscitello got involved, and his satirical WOO Girls and #BellevueWivesMatter became neighborhood treasures. Some of the art was maudlin—consider No Touching Ground's "RIP Capitol Hill" gravestone painted on the downtown-facing side of the Bauhaus building's construction site last year—and some was seething with anger. Marcus Wilson's angry sign outside Pony, with its sharp-edged lettering, warned people they were about to enter "A VERY GAY BAR," and that "IF YOU AREN'T QUEER (OR A RESPECTFUL ALLY)" you should "GET LOST." (A similar, if less convincingly outraged sign went up outside the newly revamped Comet Tavern, a business that seems specifically designed to lure the very clientele the PSA campaign addresses.)
This first wave of eight posters will eventually be followed by a second rollout of 10 to 12 more this week. Many of the posters in the second batch turn down the dial on literalistic political commentary. Dakota Gearhart's series of three posters show Muppet-like faces collaged together out of garbage, with the affirmational statement "LOOK IN THE MIRROR & SAY I LOVE YOU!" printed underneath. Yeggy Michael's angry orange-and-beige portrait of a figure grabbing its head and silently screaming could represent commentary on how longtime Capitol Hill residents feel about the changing neighborhood. Or it could mean something else entirely. I don't even know what Frank Correa's poster—three women in leather jackets and black tights, with one wielding a sword in what seems to be a play on a knighting ceremony—is supposed to say, but I know I like it. In addition to the second wave, Getahun and Sheehan are working on a video, and considering some way to incorporate podcasting into the project, perhaps by asking people on the street for their reaction to the art and to the changes in the neighborhood.
These changes are obviously not new. People can and have argued about demographic changes on Capitol Hill forever—frankly, it's a miracle that a neighborhood immediately next to downtown Seattle didn't become a developer haven years ago—but the spray of artistic objection proves that a lot of people are feeling the same thing at the same time. Neither Sheehan nor Getahun have been denizens of the neighborhood for an especially long time, but #CapHillPSA isn't about the good old days; its posters are about the right to feel safe and free from persecution while walking down the street, the need to be recognized as a human being. But if a message goes completely over the head of its target audience, is it still a message?
Getahun admits that bro culture "may not recognize" the message is aimed at them, and he says at the very least "we hope [the campaign will] be cathartic" for the Capitol Hill residents who have been forced out of their homes. (Though he also wonders whether there can be "such a thing as political art," or if propaganda is a categorically different form of communication entirely.) People have noticed the project. A Seattle Weekly story about the #CapHillPSA became the subject of a long discussion thread on Reddit's Seattle community. Whether they understand it or not, those posters are aimed directly at some of the bored tech employees who contributed 150 comments to the Reddit thread.
Many of the comments belittle the sentiment behind the posters. "Ah, Capitol Hill: the piece of prime real estate wherein a wave of new arrivals forces the incumbent self-proclaimed 'artists' to confront their utter lack of marketable skills," one comment sniffs. Some Redditors shift the blame to another demographic: "It's the hordes of mouthbreathers from the 'burbs" who are causing the trouble, one user writes. Another castigates "this 'Us vs. Them' mentality that ruins society for everyone." Others are angry with the artists in the story, especially Petersen, who says the shift in Capitol Hill has him considering a move to LA. "Remember, intolerance is only bad if it is against a special unique snowflake," Redditor LaserGuidedPolarBear fumes, concluding, "Fuck that artist." Barely any of the comments address the homophobia, sexism, and racism pointed out in the poster campaign.
But on one thing, everyone can agree: Virtually every person on the Reddit thread refers to Capitol Hill as "Cap Hill."