PHOTO ESSAY: CD Traffic Box Art, by Desmond Hansen, Honors Black Seattle Icons

by Susan Fried

If you’ve recently driven in the Central District, you may have noticed some new, colorful portraits appearing on traffic signal boxes at important neighborhood intersections. Artists or organizations can submit applications for permits to paint signal boxes online through the Seattle Department of Transportation services portal. The art program began in 2009 and has resulted in the transformation of hundreds of gray uninspiring boxes all over Seattle to beautiful artistic expressions by artists and community groups. 

Stephanie Toliver Johnson, co-chair of the Historic Central Area Arts and Cultural District (HCAACD), said that she saw and appreciated portraits of local barber Earl Lancaster on 23rd and Union and a portrait of MLK on Union and Martin Luther King Jr. Way by artist Desmond Hansen. Mr. Hansen has painted dozens of portraits of significant people on signal boxes all over Seattle. Johnson pitched the idea to HCAAD of having Mr. Hansen do more paintings of local historical figures on signal boxes at significant intersections in the CD.

Six portraits of Seattle icons Flo Ware, Joe Brazil, Eli Grose, Thelma Dewitty, Jonathan “Wordsayer” Moore, and a collage of 1960s–70s musicians were commissioned by HCAACD and completed in November of 2020. Artist Desmond Hansen painted the portraits at different intersections. He collaborated with fellow artist Perry Porter on the portrait of Thelma Dewitty. The locations were chosen with a potential trail/mapping project in mind. QR codes will eventually be added to the boxes so that people walking by can learn more about the Seattle legends depicted on the boxes.

The signal boxes are part of a bigger project that HCAACD is working on that also includes street signs on the 23rd Avenue corridor and east/west boundaries that identify the historic Central Area district. Nu Black Arts West Theatre and HCAACD recently unveiled an honorary street named after the late Douglas Q. Barnett, founder of the legendary Black Arts/West, Seattle’s first Black theater. The honorary designation of E Union Street as “Douglas Q. Barnett Street” was installed between 34th Avenue and 35th Avenue, where the original theater was located in 1969. Future projects will solicit community input for artist inspired gateways and more.

Artist Desmond Hansen poses with Upendo Moore, Jonathan “Wordsayer” Moore’s son. Artist Desmond Hansen finishes the portrait of Jonathan Moore on the signal box located at Jefferson and 23rd. (photo: Susan Fried)
The portrait of Thelma Dewitty is painted on the signal box located at 23rd and Cherry. (photo: Susan Fried)
A pedestrian passes by the unfinished portraits of local Seattle music legends Dave Lewis, Woody Woodhouse and the Fluorescents. The signal box honoring 60’s-70’s era music legends is located on Jackson and 23rd. (photo: Susan Fried)
The portrait of Flo Ware is painted on the signal box located at Martin Luther King Way Jr Way and South Jackson street. (photo: Susan Fried)
The signal box honoring Joe Brazil is located on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Yesler Way. Joe Brazil’s step grandson Zhonyak Love and his great grandsons Zyell 13 and Zamar 10 pose by his portrait. (photo: Susan fried)
The portrait of William Grose is painted on the signal box located at 23rd and East Yesler Way. (photo: Susan Fried)

Susan Fried has been a Seattle-based photojournalist for three decades. 

Featured photo by Susan Fried

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