It is impossible to ignore the neon-pink murals made by Seattle's Grrrl Army. The 14-foot-tall installations swallow telephone poles and abandoned buildings, including the abandoned Tubs in the U-District, and their blaring color screams at you from blocks away.
Upon closer inspection, you're hit with their message. "Women of the world are under attack by legislators, the media, men on the street, police," read Grrrl Army's first manifesto on the abandoned Sunset Electric Building on the corner of 11th Avenue and Pine Street. "Feminism is not dead. Don't be afraid to call people out on their sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic, ageist, thinist, classist, transphobic bullshit. Stand up... fight back!"
The installations have received praise and attention from the public, specifically around Grrrl Army's rape culture messaging. "What is Rape Culture?" the 11th Avenue wall read for a while. "Rape culture is where rape + sexual violence is an accepted and expected norm."
But they also raise concerns from city officials.
"It's vandalism; it's graffiti," says Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen. "Regardless of whether it's a gang sign or political messaging, people shouldn't be allowed to paint on other people's buildings without permission."
"As a father of three women, I understand the importance of these messages," says Council Member Tim Burgess, and while he admits that Grrrl Army's messaging is "a good thing," he adds, "Ideally, these messages will be posted on property with permission of the property owner."
Burgess and Rasmussen commissioned a 2010 study of graffiti and street art in Seattle. The study reported 556 examples of graffiti during a three-month street survey but "no instances of what could be called artistic tagging." Graffiti is considered property destruction, a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Grrrl Army's fighting words were first written on August 21 by a loose collection of 20-odd friends and acquaintances organized by one woman, who asked to be known only as SGA. She and her friends were sick of staring at naked women being used to advertise concerts on telephone poles. "A friend of mine and I used to print out stickers that said 'This demeans women' and 'How did your gender affect you today?' and people absolutely flipped their shit," SGA explains. "They fucking hated it."
Determined to start a conversation with Seattle, SGA decided to take her message to the next level: from sticker to wallpaper.
Late on that Tuesday night in August, the men and women took their frustrations out on the wall on 11th Avenue, a wall long dominated by posterGIANT, a tenacious advertising firm that wallpapers its clients' posters around the city.
"I expected to be sneered at or called 'feminazis,'" SGA says. "But instead, people walked up and shared their stories with us."
That installation was supposed to be a one-time phenomenon, but the largely positive response from strangers prompted SGA to keep going. She adopted the name Grrrl Army from stories of all-girl gangs who would bust into bars and beat the shit out of rapists, and the group embraced neon pink because of its abrasiveness and cheapness. They've since hit numerous telephone poles, an abandoned Capitol Hill grocery store, and Tubs. More installations are planned and dozens of new army recruits have joined via Facebook and Tumblr.
"I'm stoked about it," says a Seattle street artist who goes by the name Starheadboy. "They're taking down corporate posters and replacing them with conversation pieces. It seems pretty awesome to me."
Other street artists aren't as welcoming. "Their messaging is idiotic," says a graffiti artist calling himself BOOBZ (who was spray-painting "BOOBZ" across the 11th Avenue mural when I approached him). "It's just a bunch of unrelated PC bullshit scrawled on a wall, in pink. There's no thought behind it."
The new owners of the Sunset Electric Building, which is slated for residential and commercial development, are embracing their building's political vibe—for now. A newly erected construction fence surrounding the building has "three portions designed specifically to accommodate local event posters and community art," states a press release from the Wolff Company.
Grrrl Army's actions are still illegal, stress city council members and Seattle Police Department spokesman Sean Whitcomb.
But SGA shrugs it off. "We like to think that we're running on a pretty legal scale," she says, laughing. For instance, the group only targets buildings that have been wallpapered by posterGIANT or tagged past the point of recognition. "If it's okay for [posterGIANT's] bullshit to go up—for profit—it should be okay for us to spread a positive message in the same space."
And SGA says that Grrrl Army has been approached by members of the Seattle Police Department every time they've been out painting, and they've yet to be told that their actions are illegal.
As for criticisms that Grrrl Army embraces every cause past the point of relevancy, well, that's almost the point. The murals' messages aren't cohesive because they're not intended to be. "We create public billboards," SGA says. "And then we turn to people and say, 'Now that we've got this free billboard, what do you want it to say?'"