The sound of the cleaning and sanding machines was deafening. I stood next to graffiti artist and Art Vault Seattle founder AfroSPK, who painted the "R" in "MATTER," as the machines slowly removed the layers of paint from his part of the mural. The letter depicted many colorful, laughing cloud characters, which he calls Tasty Cloud, all smushed in together. I remember watching him paint it all those months ago from the windows of our former offices on Pine.
Lead mural artist Takiyah Ward, who painted the "TT" in "MATTER," was also on-site and told me that watching the removal of the mural was a "circular moment." It made her remember the 24 hours that brought the mural into being and "the beauty of that experience and community moment." Now, it was up in dust.
All of this activity resulted from an announcement made this week by the city and VMC that the mural would be removed, repainted, and properly preserved. The collective, the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, and SDOT came to that agreement after an unwanted and unapproved layer of sealant was applied to the mural by Central Area Chamber of Commerce President Lawrence Pitre and an associate named Tanya in July.
The sealant accelerated the deterioration of the mural, binding to the paint and not the street itself, trapping dirt and street grime to the surface and upping the potential for the paint to chip away. SDOT apologized for allowing that to happen, and Pitre apologized for his role in the incident, saying he "didn't mean to offend anybody."
While the sealant made the situation worse, the paint initially did not adhere to the pavement very well. The crews yesterday not only removed paint but ground down the street's surface to make it flatter, lessening the chance of water getting into cracks and making it easier for paint to stick to the ground. Crews also gave the mural a "really good shower," washing years of street grime off with a pressure washer shipped up from Oregon. They traced the mural's original stencil so the artists have something to reference when coming back to paint.
After about an hour and a half, MATTER is gone. They are working on LIVES now. When all the paint is removed they are going to come thru with a HUGE power washer from Oregon to make sure the surface is really clean pic.twitter.com/6lEl9KFKWA
— jasmyne keimig (✿◕‿◕) (◡‿◡✿) (@jasmynekeimig) September 22, 2020
"Removing this really does make you feel a certain way," AfroSPK told me, noting that despite the city's attempt to right a wrong, taking off the original paint job undermines the spirit of protest that created it. He said the re-doing of this work has dredged up emotions for the artists who put a lot of their energy into the project. Angelina Villalobos—a.k.a. 179, the artist who painted the "A" in "BLACK"—mixed her mother's ashes into the paint. The city was now sanding off those ashes.
But both AfroSPK and Ward emphasized that the main point of the mural and movement behind it was that Black Lives Matter. "This effort is not a checking off list for the city," said Ward. "This is awesome, but we need actual substantial action to change people's lives in real ways."
Weather permitting, all 16 artists will regather on Saturday and Sunday to repaint the mural, hoping it can now last for years to come.