Photo depicting James Crespinel refreshing the paint on a mural of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., painted in hues of blues and purples.

Mural of MLK Vandalized Over MLK Weekend to Be Restored by Original Artist

by Ben Adlin

A Central District mural of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that was crudely defaced over MLK Day weekend is expected to be restored in coming weeks with the help of the community, the mural’s original artist said on Wednesday, Jan. 19.

The iconic mural of Martin Luther King Jr. was first put up in 1995 at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr Way and East Cherry Street, on the exterior wall of the building that’s now home to Fat’s Chicken and Waffles. The artwork has since become a landmark and source of inspiration to many in the historical heart of Seattle’s Black community.

Erika White, co-owner and general manager of Fat’s, said she first noticed the damage around 10:30 a.m. Monday, Jan. 17, during a visit to the restaurant, which is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, to fix a broken heater. 

“It was a complete surprise. It was very shocking, actually,” White said. “You come around to work and you see that, and it just kind of guts you.”

An employee of the Black-owned business posted a photo of the vandalism to Instagram, and it began to circulate online. King’s face appears obscured with black spray paint, and the word “rapist” is scrawled below him.

White said the mural was intact when she left work a little after 10 the night before and stopped to take a picture of the mural in recognition of the holiday, meaning the vandalism happened overnight. “That’s a cowardly move,” she said, “so you’re gonna do it when no one sees you.”

She declined to speculate about motives for the vandalism or who might be responsible but said that everything about the attack — from the mural itself to the fact it was on MLK Way in the Central District, on the building of a Black-owned business — seemed to be targeted and preplanned. She feels it was directed not just at King and his message, but the Central District’s broader Black community.

“It felt really personal,” she said. “As someone who’s occupying this space with my business, I see that mural every day. I pass that mural every day. I get inspiration and encouragement and stay focused on a goal and dreams every day.”

Later that day, KING 5 aired a prerecorded segment about White and how she originally took her management position at Fat’s in 2014 on the condition that the mural be preserved. As someone who remembers the mural going up, she explained, she feels obligated to help carry it forward.

In the aftermath of the vandalism, White said she’s met and talked with neighbors and community elders who were distraught to see the destruction of such a meaningful local symbol. 

“The community’s pissed! I’m pissed!” she exclaimed. One resident she saw on the sidewalk who’s lived in the Central District for more than 50 years “was just so angry, and I just hated that.”

Quickly after discovering the graffiti, White had it painted over so that people passing by wouldn’t see the message. She also called the mural’s original artist, James Crespinel, who splits his time between Seattle and Mexico, to give him the bad news.

White hasn’t filed a police report, pointing out that police already drive by the property every day and can clearly see the damaged mural. But she said someone at the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture recently contacted her business partner about helping to restore the artwork.

In a statement posted to social media, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell echoed the City’s support, saying the Office of Arts and Culture would “help clean up damage to this mural.”

“We will not let inflammatory actions derail our vision for a welcoming Seattle,” said Harrell, who grew up in the Central District.

A representative for King County, which lists the “Crespinel Mural” on its website as a piece of public art, did not immediately respond to emailed questions.

Crespinel, who painted the original mural in 1995 after being approached by AmeriCorps volunteers interested in providing public art for the community, refurbished the aging work in 2015 with the help of his son, Nicholas. He told the Emerald he’s on board to restore the mural, though it may take a few weeks to arrange the trip.

“For me at least, it was an assassination of character,” Crespinel said of the vandalism. “It was an assassination of a piece of art and it was an assassination of Martin Luther King. This was not meant to be anything but a nasty, nasty statement.”

He estimated the overall cost of restoration would be manageable, with the work itself likely to take a few days. “This is not a huge, $20,000 deal,” he said. “I’m not going to give a number, but it’s not that much.”

Crespinel said he’s considering launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for airfare, supplies, and related expenses. City officials could help, he said, by providing aid and equipment such as the power lift needed to easily access the full 17-foot mural.

“I’m kind of ready,” he said. “I could be doing this within the next couple of weeks, for sure.”

While the mural was originally intended to foster a safe, energizing space for the Central District community and to “switch on the love vibe” in those who passed it, Crespinel said, those who call the area home have made the mural what it is today.

When he showed up on the site in 2015 to brighten up the paint, which had faded due to sun and rain, he said some people stopped their cars in the street and ran toward him yelling, convinced he was covering up the mural. But after learning he was the artist and was repainting the piece, many shared with him how meaningful it had been in their lives.

“One woman told me that she suffered great bouts of depression and would come sit, you know, sit in front of Martin Luther King’s face,” he said. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, people would leave flowers or notes. “There were a lot of people that had a lot of stories, and it meant a lot to that community. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything quite like that.”

As keen as the artist is in helping bring the work back to life all over again, he thinks it’s crucial for people to reckon with what the recent vandalism says about the current state of Seattle.

“This is something that, as soon as you paint that back to the way it was, then it’s back to the way it was and when everything was happy and shiny,” he said. “I agree that needs to be done, but I also think it needs to be looked at and people need to digest this information, just a little bit, about what’s going on with Seattle in general.”

“It’s ugly, and it’s now part of the mural,” Crespinel explained. “That’ll be in that layer when I go back and repaint this. That’s another part of the history of this piece.”

Most of his murals throughout the decades don’t have the staying power of the MLK piece. A typical outdoor work, he said, might last about 10 years given exposure to the elements, risk of redevelopment, or damage from taggers and graffiti artists.

Aside from some fading, the MLK mural has aged with relative grace — thanks largely to the power it holds for so many in the community.

“We were so proud of the fact that for 26 years running,” Crespinel said, “there had never been even a Sharpie mark on it.”

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured Image: MLK mural at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr Way and East Cherry Street being refreshed in 2015 by mural artist James Crespinel. Image courtesy of James Crespinel.

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