Muralist Henry Luke brings community stories to public art


by Amanda Ong

Muralist Henry Luke (she/she) has murals that line the streets of Seattle cities; Oaxaca, Mexico; and Manila, Philippines. Luke’s roots are deep in the Pacific Northwest; They were raised in Madison Valley in the early 2000s, and their parents were raised in Mount Baker. They have been painting murals since 2013 and carry a sense of place and community storytelling in all of their work.

“I’ve always been interested in murals and graffiti,” said Luke, who was visiting Nova in the Central District South Seattle Emerald. “I did art through high school. … I was living in the South End at the time and I was just asking companies if I could do a mural for them.”

Eventually, a few small businesses agreed, 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 which were owned by immigrants and acted 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 frequent request. But early in her mural career, Luke infused these works with strong visual themes of identity and place. In a shisha lounge, Luke painted natural landmarks from East Africa, the homeland of many patrons, such as a famous beach in Somalia and a waterfall in Ethiopia.

“To me, those are much more meaningful landmarks,” Luke said. “But it also represents these very rich communities that all these people come from, and it can make them feel like, ‘Oh, I recognize that when they walk into a place. I feel at home here.”

Since then, Luke has received grants from the city and nonprofit organizations and has created murals throughout Seattle. your piece”The distance‘ is a ‘mobile mural’ painted on moveable materials currently on display near Rainier Beach Station as part of a series on migration.

“I interviewed three friends of mine who all had different migration stories and talked about what it was,” Luke said. “I tried to create a kind of triptych that tells different stories, but with a connected theme: why do people migrate? What problems do migrants have? How do migrants affect the place they move to and how do they create their own culture?”

But while murals are a way to give voice to and uplift members of diverse communities, many of which are often neglected by high-art institutions, Luke is also acutely aware of the tensions between neighborhoods revitalization and gentrification.

“For me, as a muralist, it’s important to pay attention to how murals and artworks in general play a role in gentrification,” Luke said. “And what is art that really represents the historical community in a place? And what is art that makes a neighborhood trendier?”

A sensitivity to the broader social and political context of their art is something Luke takes with them, even as they create collaborative murals abroad. Luke has been involved in Filipino community organization for years, which in itself has influenced her 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 wanted to come and destroy this whole neighborhood, and they were trying to defend their neighborhood,” Luke said. Community members provided Luke with an explanation of the situation and their struggle. The mural on a parishioner’s house, which faced a busy street, reads in Tagalog: “Makibaka, wag matakot‘ or ‘Dare to fight, fear not.’

“It’s a message to the community not to be afraid to stand up for your neighborhood,” Luke said. “And for me, this mural was painted with random colors and probably $15 worth of things. It certainly wasn’t the prettiest mural I’ve ever painted, but it’s one of the most meaningful murals to me because it was actually part of an important fight that would make a difference in people’s lives.”

For Luke, transforming community stories and visions into public art remains a key reason they are drawn to murals. They want to help expand access to art, especially in communities that have historically been severely isolated from mainstream art.

“I think what I’ve always loved about graffiti art and murals is that it’s just out there in public for everyone to see,” Luke said. “Instead of being a gallery with white walls and an entrance fee or something, it’s just there. People will just see it right in their community.”

Each work by the South Seattle artist shines as a story, as a message, and highlights the voices of the community from which it was born, wherever that may be. And Luke knows what power and weight that can have in the neighborhood of those who have been historically and systematically oppressed. They carry that weight with love and community caring.

“I think especially for neighborhoods that haven’t been shown a lot of love, it makes sense to see something beautiful in the community,” Luke said. “Wall art and graffiti art can really uplift and impact communities [them] Places where people can express their pride [they] feel where they come from.”

Amanda Ong (she/she) is a Chinese-American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate in the University of Washington’s Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnic and racial studies.

📸 Featured Image: Henry Luke paints murals that reinforce the stories of BIPOC and immigrant communities. Photo courtesy of Sound Transit.

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