by Jack Russillo
For more than a month, 31 colorful and inspirational paintings of female faces were posted along streets on the south end of Seattle. However, what many people found to be “exquisite,” a “highlight of my walks,” and “wonderful” were considered by others to be a nuisance — and the artworks have been removed by city officials.
Since the series debuted on March 17, many south-enders expressed their appreciation for the That’s What She Said 206 paintings, a collection of 31 portraits of prominent women and their words of wisdom. But it only took a single complaint of graffiti for Seattle City Light (SCL) to come and begin removing the street art from the telephone poles they’re mounted on.
“It really concerns me that someone complained about something that was representing and celebrating women,” said Valerie Sloane, a Seward Park resident. “I want to know what horrible human being out there got this started and what their agenda was. It’s unfathomable to me that it happened and that they have that kind of power.”
The artist, who prefers to remain anonymous, was surprised when they were notified by an advocate for their art that an SCL employee was taking down one of their installations on the corner of Rainier Avenue South and South Orcas Street. They rushed to the scene and confronted the worker, who told them that they were part of an assignment because the paintings were hazardous and that someone complained of graffiti. The worker eventually gave the portraits back but warned against them being posted again.
“It felt like a slap in the face,” said the artist. “I’ve had so much positivity come from these paintings, and they came at such an important time for all of us. It was pretty disheartening to hear that someone thought they were a nuisance.”
The artist was unsure why the SCL worker said the paintings needed to be taken down. The portraits didn’t depict anything gruesome or grotesque, and they didn’t really obscure anyone’s vision from where they were mounted on the poles. So why were they ordered to be removed?
It turns out there was never an official complaint to SCL about the artwork and there was never an order for any staff to remove the posted portraits. Whatever agenda that worker was working under when they removed the portraits was unofficial.
In the past, SCL has removed items from poles “that present egregious violations with obvious hazards,” such as driveway mirrors, banners, flowerpots, signs, and basketball hoops. SCL does prioritize orders for removal of installations that hide or cover up the SCL pole or asset numbers. SCL’s Public Information Officer, Julie Moore, said that SCL makes no judgment as to whether the items are considered art, graffiti or anything else. She did note that photos of the portraits did not make them appear to be “an immediate hazard,” and thus not a priority for removal, unless they cover up the pole or asset numbers.
The artist plans to rehang the works that were taken down, but in a less conspicuous way. The other paintings will remain posted in their original locations, where they don’t draw as much attention as a corner on one of the city’s busiest streets.
The portraits remain posted across Beacon Hill, Georgetown, and Skyway, among other areas in South Seattle, and more paintings of strong women and their inspiring quotes are on the way, the artist says. Future installments of the series will be placed in or near outdoor public spaces, where there should be no risk of removal.
Jack Russillo is a journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Featured image: That’s What She Said 206 art installation (Photo: Sharon H. Chang)