The I-5 underpass columns, located next to the retainer wall where the new mural will be painted • Photo by Carmen Hom

A new mural project on South Jackson Street is in the works. Tom Im, the Deputy Director of Interim CDA, is one of the initiators who want to beautify the Chinatown International District (CID.)

“We got some funding from the National Endowment of the Arts and started to look at the area underneath the freeway to do some changes,” said Im.

In 2017, community stakeholders reached out to Interim CDA about making modifications to the I-5 underpass on South Jackson Street. The areas of the CID north of Jackson and south of King Street were also identified as needing improvement.

This mural project, funded by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods and Historic South Downtown, is the beginning of a long-term estimated $3 million remodeling effort to beautify the neighborhood at large.

Shogo Ota, one of the leading artists for this project, said he wants the mural to represent “the communities and history of the city of Seattle in an abstract way.”

Interim CDA initially made contact with landscape architectural firm Site Workshop to begin creating a conceptual design for long-term beautification efforts. After multiple community meetings, the Friends of I-5 group was formed to direct the ongoing process.

“The goal was really putting a committee together to help revitalize that area, in particular, under the bridge,” said Ali Lee, a co-chair of Friends of I-5.

Lining the north side of South Jackson Street, underneath the highway, there is a large retaining wall and community members suggested painting it. “As part of the project, there was a call out to do a mural underneath the freeway,” said Im. He explained that beautifying this wall was chosen as the starting point for the broader revitalization effort due to its relatively low cost to implement.

Once the group narrowed in on this specific place, they began fundraising. The Department of Neighborhoods provided $50,000 and Historic South Downtown contributed $35,000, “to not only do the mural, but also to repaint the columns underneath the freeway,” said Im. The columns were painted in 1997 with a red and yellow koi fish composition that has since faded.

The group now needed artists to design the mural and through a qualification process, they chose local artists Shogo Ota and Rafa Diaz.

Ota is a Japanese Artist who has been running his own art studio for over a decade. He always enjoyed making art when he was younger but never thought about pursuing it as a career.

He said: “When I was a college student one of my friends told me I look like an artist and I thought, that’s cool! Then I switched my major to art and design.”

Diaz is from Mexico City. He was inspired to become an artist by the strong urban art culture there and his deep connection to his indigenous heritage. “Art is a very powerful platform for sharing stories.”

South Jackson Street • Photo by Carmen Hom

On March 3rd, 9th, and 15th, Friends of I-5 held community workshops to gather ideas for the mural design.

“We wanted people to represent themselves through nature,” said Diaz. “There are some pillars that have some koi fish paintings… and we were thinking of continuing with that nature idea.”

One idea presented during the workshops was a depiction of waves and animals representing indigenous cultures, such as orcas, dispersed throughout. A couple other popular suggestions from the community were the placing of uplifting phrases across the mural in different languages and a butterfly design with the statement, “We are all immigrants,” incorporated within it.

“We got a lot of input from the community, something very important is that it should be the community who is the one telling the stories,” said Diaz. 

Although the design is not finalized, the emphasis on multiculturalism and using natural themes to revitalize the concrete structures was made clear.

To prevent future vandalism, Im says that “a part of the funding sources that we’ve applied for will be going towards adding anti-graffiti measures.” A protective film will be placed over the artwork on the mural and the repainted columns. He adds that although people can still deface the murals “it’s going to be easier for any maintenance person to actually clean the graffiti off.”

Once Diaz and Ota finalize the design of the mural, they will present it to the International Special Review District (ISRD) Board. If the design is approved, Friends of 1-5 will apply for permits from Washington State and the Seattle Department of Transportation to begin the installation.

“It’s a laborious process, but that’s just how it is in the city. And we’re hoping to get approval probably by early June, maybe the middle of June, and then start painting in like July or August,” said Im.

When referring to how people can get involved, Im said:

“Besides getting people to our ensuing community engagement meetings to help with the design of the project, it would be the actual installation of the project. So with actually helping out with the painting of the mural… we’ll have a big call out for folks to see who can help out.” 

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