Behind the preserved brick and expansive glass windows at Poquitos Mexican restaurant is a bland, windowless, 90-foot-wide-by-45-foot-tall puce wall. Given its location on Capitol Hill, hundreds of pedestrians pass the wall daily, its raw puceyness inspiring vague thoughts of gum disease.
This summer, that wall has come achingly close to receiving a makeover. A small group of street artists known as Graffiti Defense Coalition (GDC) embarked on a project to paint a 4,050-square-foot mural on this unmemorably ugly wall, with help from the local nonprofit The World Is Fun.
The project, which was to also include three other walls around the city, was designed to be a stunner. "Picture entire sides of buildings enveloped in thematic murals," says GDC founder Justin Hart. He imagines something on the scale of the UK's iconic hog-tied wolf painted on the side of a five-story brick apartment building. "We felt that Seattle was at the perfect stage for that type of presentation—not just one but several murals that are so huge, so unmistakable, that everyone would be talking about them."
They dubbed the project Stunning Seattle.
The owners of the Pike Building (at 1100 East Pike Street) loved the idea. They gave their blessing to repaint the puce wall, as did the owners of the nearby Union Art Cooperative (1100 East Union Street), the Olive Terrace Apartments (430 East Howell Street), and Shop Rite Drugs (426 15th Avenue East). Better yet, the city loved the idea. Last October, it awarded a $49,251 matching grant to fund mural projects on all four buildings, with work slated to begin this summer.
But instead of fresh paint, puce perseveres at 1100 East Pike. The project has ground to a halt amid a potential legal battle between its onetime collaborators. Now GDC has until August 31 to settle its fight with TWIF or face losing its grant altogether.
"I didn't step into this looking to battle," Hart says, his words clipped with emotion. "I just want to paint murals."
The 33-year-old street artist founded GDC in 2011 in response to a city report that reached the dubious conclusion that while graffiti was flourishing in Seattle, there were "no instances of what could be called artistic tagging."
Over a year of monthly meetings in bars and basements, GDC's 50-odd members decided that their mission would be to create murals in Seattle. Not to paint them, but to secure properties, find funding, and connect artists to expansive urban canvases in need of a little color. "We wanted to stick up for street artists and facilitate dialogue with the city, with business owners, with residents, that street artists don't usually participate in," Hart explains. To find the Pike Building and others like it, Hart combed hundreds of blocks around the city, taking photographs of mural-worthy walls. Then he went home, looked up the owners in county property records, and mailed each a pitch. "We spent a lot of time and money on postage," Hart says. But it was worth it. "We got about a 30 percent positive response from people expressing an interest."
There was just one problem: "We realized that we were just an unincorporated group of residents without the resources to apply for and collect grants," Hart says.
Enter The World Is Fun (TWIF), a volunteer-run nonprofit whose mission is to support other Seattle nonprofits and promote volunteerism. Hart asked TWIF to be GDC's fiscal sponsor—a common umbrella-type role wherein a nonprofit extends its 501(c)3 tax status to another group for financial purposes, in exchange for a small fee (in this case, 5 percent of the grant).
At first blush, the pairing seemed perfect. Amy Faulkner, executive director of TWIF, says her group had been "talking about" a mural-painting event. "We moved into a partnership with GDC because we were doing a lot of planning alongside them." The groups signed a fiscal sponsorship contract in May 2012. And last November, they received word that they'd received nearly $50,000 in funding.
But the celebration was short-lived, says Hart. Within weeks, he says, TWIF tried to take over the project when it presented a formal partnership agreement. "It was a five-year contract entitling them to 50 percent of programmatic control over the Graffiti Defense Coalition," Hart explains. "Most importantly, it would give them equal brand ownership over Stunning Seattle. It would forbid the GDC from organizing another [mural project] of similar nature for five years."
The proposed partnership agreement would also expand TWIF's one-off fiscal partnership to "produce an annual 10-day art event that brings large scale murals and art festivities to the Seattle area" on a seemingly ongoing basis. Furthermore, it states, "Each partner shall have equal rights to manage and control the partnership and its business."
Members of GDC felt that signing such an agreement would cost them not only control of the grant but creative control of the art. They'd been attempting to elevate typically bland public art into something stunning, and they didn't want to give up control of that vision just as they'd acquired the resources to make it happen.
Hart and the GDC refused to sign the partnership agreement, equating it with a takeover.
But Faulkner denies it's a takeover. She says the agreement was insurance that, if there were leftover mural funds, they'd be put toward future projects.
Since November 13, 2012, lawyers have been called. Letters have been sent. People have called other people "dicks" in long, rambling e-mail chains. After GDC refused to sign the agreement, TWIF even argued that the name Stunning Seattle was part of TWIF's brand—not GDC's.
"We requested that they not use the name," Faulkner says. "It was reached after the partnership was entered into. We don't want them to move forward using anything we've done in the partnership."
Of course, GDC disputes that claim. Several members confirmed that the name was created in one of the group's winter basement meetings a year before any agreement with TWIF.
The groups severed ties before any money was awarded. Both groups currently claim ownership of Stunning Seattle, however, and the grant money is in limbo. They both seem eager to launch a mural project under that name—but despite their common goal, neither group seems willing to speak with, let alone work alongside, the other. In fact, TWIF allegedly threatened to sue GDC if it went forward with its city grant while using the name Stunning Seattle. In our interview, Faulkner denied this. "We've made no threats to sue them," she stated.
But Department of Neighborhoods project manager Allynn Ruth, who is responsible for meting out the mural grant, says that TWIF has, in fact, been willing to litigate. "It was very clear that Amy was ready to defend ownership of the name in court," Ruth says. That threat was enough to scare the city away from awarding the grant to GDC, despite Hart's assurances that he owned the state trademark to Stunning Seattle. "We can't risk using city resources in a fight that doesn't involve us," Ruth explains. Instead, on advice from the city's law department, Ruth outlined three options for Hart and GDC: forfeit the name Stunning Seattle, purchase intellectual property insurance to safeguard against a lawsuit (which could cost as much as $30,000, Hart says), or table the grant for a year while submitting to the city "a meaningful plan" on how GDC and TWIF will resolve their issues.
GDC must decide by August 31 or risk forfeiting its grant. The easiest solution would be for GDC to simply change its project name, but Hart and his cohorts adamantly refuse. He says more than 200 artists from across the globe responded to Stunning Seattle's call for mural artists. Changing the name would require starting over and losing two years' worth of outreach to artists and local businesses.
"Our intent wasn't just to do this one project and stop," he says. "It was about building momentum, building a social presence, and hopefully doing more murals in the future. Starting all over would be detrimental."