by Amanda Ong
Muralist Henry Luke (they/them) has murals lining the streets in the cities of Seattle; Oaxaca, Mexico; and Manila, Philippines. Luke is deeply rooted in the Pacific Northwest; they grew up in Madison Valley in the early 2000s, and their parents grew up in Mount Baker. They have been painting murals since 2013, and carry with them a sense of place and community storytelling in all of their work.
“I was always interested in mural art and graffiti,” Luke, who attended Nova in the Central District, told the South Seattle Emerald. “I had been doing art through high school. … I was living at the time in the South End and just asking businesses if I could do a mural for them.”
Eventually, some small businesses said yes, and Luke’s mural work began. In the beginning, Luke painted smoke shops, hookah lounges, fruit stands, taco trucks — all very small, mom-and-pop businesses, most of them owned by immigrants and acting as hubs for local BIPOC communities.
Many of the small businesses Luke worked with were interested in creating eye-catching work that would bring in business. The Space Needle was a common request. But even early in their career as a mural artist, Luke imbued these works with strong visual themes of identity and place. In one hookah lounge, Luke painted natural monuments from east Africa, the home country of many patrons, such as a famous beach in Somalia and a waterfall in Ethiopia.
“To me, these are much more meaningful landmarks,” Luke said. “But it also represents these very rich communities where all these people come from, and kind of can give them a feeling when they walk into a place like, ‘Oh, I recognize this. I feel at home here.’”
Since then, Luke has received grants from the City and from nonprofits, creating murals across Seattle. Their piece “The Distance” is a “mobile mural” painted on movable materials, and it is currently hosted near the Rainier Beach Station as part of a series on migration.
“I interviewed three friends of mine who all had different stories of migration and talked about what it was,” Luke said. “I tried to create sort of a triptych that would tell different stories, but with a connected theme: Why do people migrate? What are the struggles that migrants face? How do migrants affect the place where they move to and create their own culture?”
But while murals are one way to give voice to and uplift members of different communities, many of whom are often neglected by high-art institutions, Luke is also highly aware of the tension between neighborhood revitalization and gentrification.
“It’s important for me as a mural artist to be wary of how mural art, and artwork in general, plays a role in gentrification,” Luke said. “And what is art that’s genuinely representing the historic community in a place? And what is art that is making a neighborhood more trendy?”
A sensitivity to the broader social and political context for their art is something Luke takes with them even as they create community murals abroad. Luke has been involved in Filipino community organizing for years, which in itself has influenced their art and sense of activism. One of the most meaningful murals Luke has created was painted on a trip to the Philippines with political activists and organizers. During their travels, they visited an urban squatter community in Manila that was facing violent demolition.
“People were going to come and destroy this whole neighborhood, and they were trying to defend their neighborhood,” Luke said. Community members gave Luke an explanation of the situation and their struggle. The mural, on a community member’s house that faced a busy street, reads in Tagalog, “Makibaka, wag matakot,” or “Dare to struggle, don’t be afraid.”
“It’s a message to the community to not be afraid to stand up for their neighborhood,” Luke said. “And, to me, this mural was painted with probably $15 worth of random paints and things. It wasn’t the most beautiful mural that I’ve ever painted, for sure, but it’s one of the most meaningful murals to me because it was actually a part of an important struggle that would matter to people’s lives.”
For Luke, turning community stories and visions into public art remains a vital part of why they have been drawn to murals. They want to help broaden access to the arts, especially in communities that have historically been highly gatekept out of mainstream art.
“I think what I always appreciated about graffiti art and mural art is that it’s just out there in the public, for everyone to see,” Luke said. “Instead of it being a gallery with white walls and entrance fee or something like that, it’s just there. People are just going to see it right there in their community.”
Each piece of the South Seattle artist’s work shines as a story, a message, and highlights the voices of the community it is born of, wherever that may be. And Luke knows what the power and weight of that can be in the neighborhoods of those who have been historically and systemically oppressed. They carry that weight with love and community care.
“I think especially for neighborhoods that haven’t been shown a lot of love, it’s meaningful to see something beautiful in the community,” Luke said. “Mural art and graffiti art can really improve communities and make [them] places where people can express the pride [they] feel for where they’re from.”
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured Image: Henry Luke paints murals that amplify the stories of BIPOC and immigrant communities. Photo courtesy of Sound Transit.
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