by Sharon H. Chang
Columbia City is pretty empty these days. Businesses have been closed for weeks and residents are largely staying home except for some outdoor exercise and quick trips for essentials. Walking through the normally busy district, the dark shop windows and lonely grey sidewalks can feel a little eerie. That is until a shimmer and pop of color from a nearby telephone pole suddenly catches the eye. Then, more color explodes on a pole across the street, and on another farther along. Someone has created bright, beautiful portraits of influential women, speaking powerful quotes, and hung them all over the neighborhood. For a moment, inspiration and happiness replace the uncertainty and sadness of pandemic.
There are glittery, neon-framed portraits of women like Michelle Obama, Ijeoma Oluo, Lindy West, and Malala Yousafzai. The art is as beautiful as it is deeply meaningful. A portrait of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez saying, “We are fighting for an unapologetic movement for economic social and racial justice in the United States,” seems especially timely given the recent news that Black, Brown and Indigenous people are disproportionately dying from COVID-19 in the US.
The feminist installation is called That’s What She Said 206 and was created by a local portrait artist who prefers to remain anonymous in the tradition of street art. “It’s about the bravery and greatness of these women, not about me,” said the artist. #ThatsWhatSheSaid is a widely used hashtag on social media to quote inspirational women and “206” is the area code for Seattle.
The artist wanted to highlight dynamic women given the limited attention paid to Women’s History Month this year. March was Women’s History Month, but its celebration was subsumed by the coronavirus which began to spread in Washington State at the end of February. The third-annual Womxn’s March, scheduled to coincide with International Women’s Day (March 8), was postponed, as was a concurrent 25th-anniversary march and rally organized by anti-violence organization API Chaya.
With the curbed celebration and International Women’s Day as a catalyst, the artist collected a list of women they wanted to honor early in the month. Making portraits of the women then became the artist’s Crush/Repeat challenge, an annual community art project encouraging queer people and friends to create daily March projects. Having already participated in Crush/Repeat the last couple of years, the challenge was just the motivation the artist needed to produce work on the daily.
Using all recycled materials like old picture frames, collected glass gems, silver bubble wrap bags (from grocery deliveries), silver garlands, and paint pens from past projects, the artist began making 31 powerful portraits for each day of Women’s History Month. Each piece erupts with color, a trademark of the artist. The artist also wanted something eye-catching so they added sparkling tinsel garlands at the bottom of each piece.
In mid-March, the artist decided to take their portraits to the streets. They had always been a fan of street art, following hashtags like #telephonepoleart and #seattlestreetart on Instagram, but had never done it themselves. But monitoring the street art hashtags during the COVID-19 pandemic and seeing the explosion of beautiful art decorating boarded-up buildings finally compelled the artist to try it. “It’s contagious, the creative energy people are having during this time,” they said.
On March 17, in the middle of the night, the artist hung a batch of five portraits on different telephone poles in and around Columbia City. “It was exhilarating,” said the artist. “It makes you feel a little badass.” The artist continued to go out on select evenings, hanging portraits in batches of five and six, until the last day of the month. All 31 portraits are now hanging in the neighborhood.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. There is an Instagram account for That’s What She Said 206 where the artist posts pictures of the portraits and gives clues on how to find them. “It’s so sweet,” the artist said, “people are saying that they’re making maps to do walking tours.” The installation has also been shared multiple times on the Columbia City Facebook Group where it has received over 1,000 likes. In the comments, one group member said they had a great time doing a scavenger hunt for portraits with their first grader. Another group member thanked the artist profusely and said the installation puts a smile on their face every time they see a new part of it. Given the nature of the craft, street artists are usually unaware of people’s opinions of their work, said the artist. So, it has been wonderful to see all the gratitude on social media.
What’s next? Well, That’s What She Said 206 was supposed to conclude after all 31 Women’s History Month portraits were hung, said the artist. “But I’m going to keep going because it’s been so fun and there is no shortage of amazing, brave women to quote.” It might be slower going now due to the difficulty of finding recycled materials to use, they said. However, the artist has been scouring their house and has more portraits in the works. As for where to find them when they are ready, the artist will not reveal much. The mystery is a big part of the fun and much-needed escape people are looking for. “All I will say,” offers the artist playfully, “is keep your eye out on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill next.”
Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer, and award-winning writer. She is the author of the acclaimed book Hapa Tales and Other Lies that reflects critically on her Asian American, Mixed Race, and activist identity through the prism of returning to Hawai‘i as a tourist. She lives in the Columbia City neighborhood.