From the outside, this building on the edge of the International District looks like an old school. Inside, it echoes like a school, too. It's easy to imagine the hallways teaming with students. At one time, there were children within these walls, but they weren't students; they were prisoners.
Today, the building is known as Inscape, the self-proclaimed "largest arts and culture enclave in Seattle," with 125 tenants in 77,000 square feet of space. Old jail cells and administrative offices now serve as studios for painters, designers, pet photographers, a kombucha brewer, and the Tibetan Nuns Project (a nonprofit that supports Tibetan women entering monastic life). School groups take field trips here, and it's open sometimes for studio tours. But for most of its history—from 1932 to 2004—any art that was made here was incidental.
This was the United States Immigration Station and Assay Office, more commonly called the INS Building, and it was where immigrants went to have their American dreams realized or denied. Some people, like my Stranger colleague Charles Mudede, got their US citizenship here; others were detained here before being deported.
Louie Gong, an indigenous Canadian artist who owns Eighth Generation, a company that makes and sells wool blankets, operates three studios in the building, including the room where records for resident aliens like him were once stored.
Originally, the top floor of the building was the Treasury Department's Assay Office, where miners would bring gold and silver for processing before selling their precious metals for cash. The vault remains today, although it's currently padlocked shut. The lower three floors were given over to immigration and detention. In the early years, almost all those detained were Chinese.
In 1882, almost 30 years before the building opened, President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned the immigration of Chinese laborers. It was the first law in the United States that prohibited a specific ethnic group from immigrating, but it certainly was not the last.
The Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, in the midst of World War II, when it was Japanese people, not Chinese, who were seen as the enemy. The day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese men in and around Seattle were rounded up and taken in for questioning at the INS Building. Soon after, they were sent to internment camps—as were women and children.
More recently, the bulk of immigrants arrived from Mexico, as well as Central and South America, and it was at the INS Building where judges would determine their fates.
After 9/11, the federal government began requiring all males from 25 predominantly Arab and Muslim countries to enter a special registration. By 2003, immigration officials had interviewed over 85,000 Muslims and other Arabs. In Seattle, those interviews happened at INS too.
My colleague Charles Mudede, a native of Zimbabwe, which used to be known as Rhodesia, says the INS Building, where he spent a lot of time going through the bureaucratic process of becoming a citizen, "was the most cosmopolitan place in Seattle. You saw ethnicities you'd never even heard of. You'd wake up at four in the morning to get in line early and there would still be people in front of you. The line of people standing in the rain would stretch down the block. It was a horrible place. No matter how good your situation was, people who worked there treated you like shit. There were no attempts to be kind. You would see people crying, just desperate."
While he and other immigrants waited outside the building in Seattle's semi-constant drizzle, they could see detainees housed on the second floor, leaning through windows or hanging out in the rooftop courtyard, watching.
After 72 years in continuous use, the INS Building closed in 2004. By then, it was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter to detain people here, and too crowded all year long. The federal government was flooding Homeland Security and immigration enforcement with money. The operations that used to take place inside were split up— today, you go to government offices in Tukwila to renew visas or interview for citizenship, and detained immigrants are held in another facility, the privately owned Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
The building was auctioned off for $4.4 million after INS moved out. With input from leaders in Seattle's immigrant community, the buyers turned it into artist studios.
It's been artist studios ever since. Still, it's not just a place for pet portraits and screen printing. It's also a monument. In 2014, the Wing Luke Museum installed a permanent exhibition called Voices of the Immigration Station, and there are placards along the tile walls that explain what happened here, in the prison that was never officially called a prison.
"When the community reflected on what was going to happen to the building, they appreciated that artists would be able to engage with the complicated history of the space," says Cassie Chinn, the deputy executive director of Wing Luke. "Artists are able to live in this tension where there were some joyful moments—getting citizenship, being formally welcomed into the US—and also some very difficult moments."
For the Wing Luke exhibition, Dori Cahn, a local writer and teacher, recorded oral histories from immigrants, former detainees, attorneys, employees, and others with a connection to the space. "They call it 'administrative detention,'" one placard reads, "but to me, it is plain old incarceration. I mean, we wear uniform, lock in cage, and we all get numbers. It's funny how people try to justify injustice." Another tells the story of an Ethiopian detainee who was scheduled to be deported to a place he hadn't been back to since he was a kid. Desperate to break free and reunite with his American wife and children, he scaled the prison walls and fell to his death.
In between placards, there is art. While wandering the halls recently, I saw portraits, photographs, installations, a headless mannequin leaning against a wall, and encaustic paintings that use wax and heat to splash color across canvas. In one studio, blinking eyes were projected against a blank wall, an unsettling reminder that this place was once run by uniformed guards.
Eighty-six years after the building first opened, deportation is still very much an American value, especially now as the Trump administration wages war against immigrants. At the same time, the old prison is now occupied by mostly white American-born artists who will never live under the threat of being kicked out. This can give the appearance that the prison, like other parts of Seattle, has been swept up in rapid gentrification.
In response to Trump's election, and with help from Wing Luke, Inscape started a residency program for immigrants, who are given a free space in which to work. So far, they've had three artists-in-residence, including Yuri Kinoshita, an artist from Japan who used her residency to make Fuga, a steel and bamboo tree with lights spilling out of the trunk like a psychedelic oak. "I felt like I got to time travel," she says of her residency. "Or that time stopped."
The final Wing Luke placard is at the top of the building, where miners once brought their precious metals. "Are there ghosts in the building?" it reads. Perhaps.
"It's common for people visiting the building to feel that it's haunted," says Louie Gong, the indigenous blanket maker, "but I think it's the residue of the history of the building and the negative experiences people had there that lingers. Over time, I can feel that negative energy giving way to the positive energy of the artists working there now."