The Sodo Track is an Art Gallery Built for Transit Riders
Crowds of people run from a swarm of pink cats falling out of the sky. A high jumper barely edges over a towering obstacle. A giant panting wolf races from a burning building.
These are just a few of the many images tens of thousands of people traveling by light rail or bus or even bicycle everyday can now catch a glimpse of as they speed across the Sodo Track, a two-mile transit corridor leading to downtown Seattle.
In all, this nearly completed public art project consists of 50 murals painted by more than 60 artists and is considered one of the world’s longest contiguous corridors of street art. Spearheaded by the King County cultural funding agency 4Culture, each piece offers the artists’ own take on the project theme “movement and progress.”
For some, the theme prompted larger-than-life animals speeding through a vibrant landscape. For others, it elicited more abstract shapes and lines or even a poignant catchphrase; The Los Angeles-based duo Cyrcle used giant white letters to form the phrase, “then out came the sun.”
No matter what the interpretation, each artist’s vibrant work serves as a key piece of the Sodo Track puzzle, a project that has transformed the dull and aging look of a major transit route into the hub of the city.
But it also offers something of an artistic ode to the city’s mass transportation systems and the many people making use of them. Rather than painting the murals on the side of the buildings facing the busy, car-filled streets, the art is on the side used by trains and buses.
Gage Hamilton, the project’s curator and one of its participating artists, said given the democratic nature of both mass transportation and public art, he said the two go very well together.
“I think mass transit—that is what it is—it’s for the people,” he said. “It’s not for the people who are more wealthier and privileged that are used to going to museums and things like that.”
The idea for the project has been floating around for over two decades, said Tamar Benzikry, senior 4Culture project manager. The agency wanted to revamp the look of this transportation portal.
She said she remembers taking the light rail into work most days and staring out the windows at blank building backs, some in disrepair.
“I remember asking myself, ‘is this our welcome to downtown Seattle?’” she said in an email. “As a city bursting with creativity, is this the best we can do?”
It turns out it isn’t.
In 2016, the agency officially launched the mural project. With the help of Sodo BIA, King County Metro, and Sound Transit, it was able to commission artists from Washington, as well as across the country and abroad. Hamilton said it selected people based on past examples of their work and a sketch of what they planned to paint on the building.
But since this is a linear project, meaning viewers would likely see it in one long, uninterrupted line, the group also had to consider how each piece would fit in with one another.
“It’s much different than other projects where you’re kind of thinking one mural at a time in this neighborhood or that neighborhood,” said Hamilton. “This really gave an opportunity to think about how these works play off one another.”
Each building is about 20 to 30 feet tall and a couple hundred feet long. They are made of mostly cement and corrugated metal, which are notoriously difficult to paint on.
Brian Sanchez, a Seattle-based artist, said he spent 10 days working on his abstract piece. He utilized about 14 colors and a variety of different shapes, lines, and forms to produce his work, which he hopes will have a different emotional impact on each person who sees it.
“I wanted to create something you could find something new in it every time you passed by it,” said Sanchez.
One of the key challenges involved with this project was getting permission from dozens of building owners to essentially use their structures as giant canvases. Hamilton said they went door to door asking the owners, who at first were a little hesitant.
In the first year, only five property owners agreed to let their buildings be painted. But after others saw the results, many more signed on.
Today, there are only a few building gaps left to fill in. Hamilton said 4Culture will try to bring those owners on board, but otherwise the project is essentially finished. The hope is to keep each one for seven years and then likely bring in new work to update the space.
But until then, Hamilton said he really hopes the murals give passersby a sense of pride.
“I think improving people’s daily experience and getting people to step out of their zone a little bit, find a little inspiration or even just a cue into exploring these things further,” he said. “I think culturally it makes subtle but big impacts on people.”