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SODO Murals for the PEOPLE (on light rail)

Posted by Johnine Larsen on September 14, 2018
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You might never notice Seattle’s newest record-setting art installation—not unless you ride light rail, that is. The 50 murals that make up the SODO Track were designed specifically for people using public transit. Regular drivers don’t see the murals. Pedestrians can see some of them, but only if they go out of their way. The busway for a few bus routes stop along the way, including the 50, 101, 102, 150, 177, 178, 190, 590, 594 and 595 (thanks to Jessica Young Cole for pointing this out), but this giant art project primarily belongs to the light rail experience.

The 50 murals are the collaborative work of 62 artists over the past three years. The artwork covers two miles of track between Stadium and Beacon Hill Stations (for those more familiar with automotive directions, that’s Holgate Street to Spokane Street), and they’re painted on the backs of buildings along the light rail route—yes, the “unimportant,” overlooked backs that most customers never see.

All the murals follow the theme of “motion, speed, and progress.” Some take that literally: a high-jumper mid-flight, a stampeding herd of deer, a turquoise cheetah sprinting alongside the tracks. Other murals get more abstract with bright, geometric shapes or typographical messages. All are striking and beautiful in their own right; taken together, they create a masterpiece.

I love these murals for all sorts of reasons. They’re the world’s longest contiguous corridor of street art, for one, and (reason #2) they might also be the world’s most diverse street art. Lead artist Gage Hamilton welcomed all sorts of artists to the project. Some artists are local; others come from Japan, Israel, Argentina, Australia, Mexico, and Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Romania). Their different backgrounds manifest as different art styles that celebrate the diversity of their community.

I love, too, that these murals support collaboration. Artists worked together not just on the whole project, but also on individual murals—and they partnered with business, too. You can’t just paint the back of any building you like—each mural you see shows a business that agreed to be a part of this years-long undertaking.

Can I keep going? Reason #4 why these murals mean so much to me is environmental responsibility. Art designed uniquely for light rail honors those who take public transit. Public transit is the responsible option, more sustainable both for our planet and for Seattle’s terrible traffic. Our city’s public transportation network is still limited (I know it rarely works for my own routes), but art that celebrates our existing light rail track encourages our city to keep moving in that direction. As you know, I love anything that gets people excited about improving our city and our environment.

In some cases, these murals also benefit the homeless. Some people live in tents between the light rail track and the decorated businesses, and they’ve responded to the murals with enthusiasm. “It seemed to give them some pride in their area,” lead artist Greg Hamilton told Crosscut. “Some of the guys offered to watch over the murals.” Even the initial idea behind this project came out of a desire to empower disadvantaged and homeless youth in the area. You can read more about that history on Seattle Met.

But maybe the biggest thing I appreciate about these murals: it’s art for normal people. You don’t need an art degree to appreciate these, and you don’t need a thick wallet and an evening out, either. They’re free and right along your regular route. In fact, 50,000 people see these murals every weekday. For me, they’re the highlight of riding the light rail.