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Most Influential, Arts: Stevie Shao

The Seattle muralist and illustrator understands the power of public art

By Rachel Gallaher February 8, 2023

Stevie Chao

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Stevie Shao is one of Seattle’s 25 most influential people reshaping our region. #mostinfluential  

When the Covid-19 pandemic started, Stevie Shao had never painted a mural. By the time Washington state lifted its lockdown order 15 months later, Shao had become one of the most in-demand public artists and illustrators in Seattle. 

What started as a freelance project for the Ballard Alliance — a graphic mural featuring the phrase, “It’s Gonna Be OK,” in looping, bubble-gum pink text across a boarded-up storefront —ended up making the social media rounds. Its reassuring message was a poignant balm amidst the fear and uncertainty of a global pandemic. 

“A lot of artists started painting murals at the same time as me,” Shao says. “It was during the lockdown, and I hadn’t even seen my friends or family in weeks, so it was nice to feel connected to these other artists and be out there painting together.”

Sam Fu, courtesy of Stevie Shao

For those struggling with feelings of isolation, Shao’s lively murals — she did three along the same street in Ballard during the first months of the pandemic — provided a sense of connection to the community.

As the months dragged on and more businesses boarded up, the demand for public art grew. Shao’s work became a prominent part of the city’s artistic landscape, with murals going up in Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square, South Lake Union, Belltown and the International District.

At just 22 years old, Shao wasn’t only filling the streets with pretty pictures; she was also making a statement. Growing up in Magnolia, the daughter of Chinese immigrants who didn’t meet many children who looked like her, most of the art encountered was Eurocentric. Shao loved to paint and draw as a child, and she credits an instructor at Seattle Pacific University, illustrator Rachell Sumpter, for encouraging her to develop her style. 

Shao’s illustrations are rooted in her personal experience. They combine her Chinese American heritage with her life in the Pacific Northwest. Her patterned, brightly colored, illustrative work taps into the Chinese culture and history she learned from her family — and now proudly shares with the community.

 

Artist Stevie Shao paints a mural in Hing Hay Park during the Chinatown International District Celebration, August 7, 2021.
(Genna Martin)

“I love incorporating the plants and animals from this region with the symbols and ideas from the stories my parents told me as a child,” she says. “I think of [my murals] as their own universes with sets of characters that have stories. Storytelling is a great way to share culture.” 

Three years after the pandemic first hit, Shao is now a full-time artist. In that time, she’s been tapped for a collaboration with fashion designer Anna Sui, designed the 2022 Women in Hockey jersey for the Seattle Kraken, done work for Starbucks, the Seahawks and REI, among others, and also created merch for musical artist Chong the Nomad. She’s also shown in several gallery shows. Shao recently finished her largest mural to date — a menagerie of mythical creatures covering three façades of the building that houses University Book Store — and has a handful of projects on deck for 2023. 

“What’s special to me is that whenever I work on something in the city, I’m reminded of the support I have here and how deep my roots go,” she says. “I feel very loved by my community.”

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