by Amanda Ong
From 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m five days a week, Tori Shao works as a landscape architect. But after work and on weekends, Shao is creating artistically — whether that be making, bottling, and designing labels for small-batch hot sauce for friends, starring in a Vanity Fair video with her sister, or quite literally painting the town red as a local muralist. Since late 2019, Shao has also had a ceramics studio space as a tenant at Inscape Arts. Last year, the owners of the former Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) building — which houses Inscape — listed the building on the market, putting Seattle’s largest artist enclave at risk for redevelopment into commercial or residential spaces.
Shao was initially introduced to Inscape by her partner, who helps operate his brother’s handmade, plant-based soap company, Estrella, out of a studio at Inscape. But Shao’s connection to the building precedes them both. After taking her parents to visit Inscape, her parents realized it was also the building where they had been naturalized in the early 2000s, when it was still the INS building.
“The building is a very important place to me and has a very complicated narrative,” Shao said in an interview with the Emerald. Shao’s parents immigrated to the United States from China, and Shao was raised in Seattle, in Magnolia.
Her parents didn’t bring Shao or her sister to attend their naturalization ceremony, as the two sisters were in school. Only now does Shao recognize it as a significant moment, and by working in her studio, she can continue to foster her connection with these moments. With the potential sale of the building, her personal history is threatened as well as her art.
Though her studio at Inscape is for ceramics, Shao is better known for her murals throughout Seattle. Her projects include kingfishers for Halcyon Brewing Co., magpies and magnolias lining the University District light rail station, acanthus for The Vera Project, veggies at the UW Food Pantry, and a series of uplifting, colorful pieces along Ballard Avenue storefronts that were closed amid the pandemic. In coming weeks, Shao also has a mural in Ballard at Lucky Envelope Brewing in the works.
Shao has done work for the Seattle & King County Public Health’s anti-stigma digital art campaign; designed a postcard for a limited edition box of Theo Chocolate; and created a new logo for Historic South Downtown, the first State-created agency responsible for community preservation, funding local projects across the Pioneer Square and Chinatown-International District neighborhoods.
Shao’s sister Stevie is also an illustrator and muralist, which has made for artistic collaborations between the sisters. Together, they painted wayfinding signage at the fruitsuper boutique in Pioneer Square during renovations. They were also recently featured together in a Vanity Fair video for Starbucks’ 50th anniversary, after they had both separately created art with the Starbucks Global Art Program. Only later did the program administrators realize they were sisters.
Shao says she is just trying to make a life for herself that she doesn’t want to escape from. Creating art is a part of that, and having her own ceramics studio at Inscape gives her a home for nurturing herself and her art wholly.
“I feel so lucky,” Shao said. “This is all that 8-year-old Tori wanted.”
Even with the recognition of Vanity Fair, Shao says she still struggles with the title of “artist.” While this is partly attributed to having a day job, it also stems from her identity as a second-generation immigrant, which she continues to explore. “When you grow up in a situation where your parents are literally just trying to survive and trying to make a life, it instills in you this very narrow definition of success,” Shao said. “You spend a lot of time trying to break down that narrow definition, trying to create your own [definition], and then also trying to portray that to other people.”
Navigating cultural and ingrained ideas about success has played a role as Shao balances her careers as a landscape architect and as an artist, although sometimes she feels pressure to eventually choose between the two. The majority of tenants at Inscape are full-time artists. Still, she sees strong overlap between her two paths.
“In terms of landscape architecture and public art, the goal of it is to create accessible spaces of thought that foster and emphasize a community that is there,” Shao said. “It’s a method of storytelling. … You’re trying to take in all this contextual information and draw out what the community is telling you to share with other people.”
Inscape itself is doing similar work in storytelling and place-making. Ever since the former INS building was transformed into an artist community, Inscape has — through partnerships with the Wing Luke Museum and its own tenants — worked to create installations and signage that preserve the story of the building and of Seattle’s immigration history.
For Shao, that history is particularly salient when it comes to Inscape and her parents’ own experiences there. “To be so connected to that, literally one generation away, the fact that we are able to reclaim this space as a creative space now is incredibly powerful,” Shao said in her interview with Vanity Fair.
However, Shao acknowledges that possible displacement may also unfortunately be a part of Inscape’s narrative. With Inscape’s future threatened by a potential sale, there are few remaining affordable and accessible places for artists in an already rapidly changing — and increasingly expensive — city. Artists are being displaced as well as long-standing BIPOC communities.
“The Seattle I grew up with has been displaced — a lot of new factors in this city have changed, literally, how the city looks,” Shao said. “Seattle was marketed as the last stop to the Yukon during the Gold Rush, all the way to like Boeing being here, Starbucks being here, Amazon being here … [Seattle] is such a boom-and-bust city that the population is changing a lot.”
Having been raised in Seattle and attended the University of Washington, Shao says people are often surprised that she is from Seattle. With the number of transplants across the city, a real Seattle local is like a unicorn. Shao jokes that she is just like anyone else in her hometown, trying to avoid high school classmates in the grocery store. But jokes aside, Shao notes that gentrification has swept the city so rapidly that the existing communities have been pushed out in favor of development opportunities. The potential sale of Inscape is an unfortunate example of that.
“I do feel like I’m still finding my own identity, and I do feel like I seek out things that would help inform that process,” Shao said. “Being in [Inscape] and being connected to its narratives has definitely informed what place means to me and what the work I’m trying to do means to me.”
Her story, from her parents’ naturalization to her own work in public art, runs parallel to Inscape’s story of immigration center turned artist enclave. Through her family history, her murals, her commitment to public space, and realizing her childhood dream of an art studio — in the same building where her parents were naturalized, no less — Shao weaves for Seattleites a story of Inscape’s personal and historical significance. She is wrought into the brick of her studio’s walls just as Inscape is wrought into the ground of Seattle immigration history.
“To me, [the sale of Inscape] would be a huge loss for the community and the loss of the history of the current narrative of the building as well,” Shao said. “I really like the current story — that is a really great story.”
Editor’s Note: This article was edited post-publication for clarity.
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: Known for her popular murals around Seattle, Tori Shao was raised in Magnolia and attended the University of Washington. Her parents immigrated to the United States from China and were naturalized in the Former INS building, where Shao now has a ceramics studio. (Photo: Joshua Gawne)
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!