Seattle Muralist Crystal Barbre Alters Her Work to Skirt Obscenity Laws

Posted on September 27, 2016, 1:05 pm
11 mins


Who’s Afraid of the Female Nipple? The State of Washington

It’s not the first thing you’ll notice on the seascape fantasia Crystal Barbre has painted on the front wall of Deja Vu Adult Superstore. It’s not even the third or fourth thing. You’ll be too busy drinking in the mysterious glowing light playing across a mermaid’s cheeks, conjured by Barbre’s oils. The orgasmic expression on a mermaid’s face as a wave bursts in crescendo behind her. The tentacles wrapping sensually around a nude merman’s thighs. But, eventually, you’ll wonder: Why are that mermaid’s breasts blunt, sexless orbs? Where are her nipples? Do mermaids even have nipples?

Barbre’s do—she just wasn’t allowed to paint them.

“If I had painted this mural on the Crumpet Shop wall across the street, they’d all have nipples. And it wouldn’t even be a discussion. But because this wall is attached to a business associated with sex work, it’s considered ‘lewd matter’.”

Barbre was commissioned over a year ago by Deja Vu’s marketing director Sean Dunlap to paint a public art piece as part of their rebranding effort—the store and gentleman’s club will soon become FantasyUnlimited on 1st. The mural was to communicate the company’s positivity: towards sex, bodies, and women. Barbre—a Seattle-based oil painter whose often-NSFW work revolves around these themes—was an obvious choice. With complete artistic freedom, Barbre designed the tentacular ocean fantasy, and executed it over brutally hot summer weeks with assistant Kyle Abernathy. As she began to lay down the sepia underpainting—an old-school technique rarely seen in the age of spray paint murals—she steeled herself against the outcry she expected from passersby at Pike Place Market. It didn’t come.

“I didn’t get one single negative reaction from people walking by,’ says Barbre over coffee, the morning after completing the mural.

“People who work in the neighborhood came out to watch. The dancers in the club loved checking in as it progressed. There were soccer moms walking by, and they’re saying ‘thank you, this is so beautiful.’”

Barbre invited kids to paint sections with her, and allowed people to add painty fingerprints. She works in oil, a very rare medium for street art, and was proud to show onlookers this Old Master technique in action. Even the guy who shouts homophobic hate through a megaphone—you know that guy—put down his sign to talk about religious iconography in art. Best of all were the homeless people she encountered, who were eager to talk about their own art and poetry, and ask questions.

“They told me they would protect it, that they’d watch out to make sure it wouldn’t get tagged. It’s their space, and they felt like it’s being treated with respect.”

But, some did ask about the nudity: would the women be fully exposed? At the time, Barbre shrugged.

“I figured, there’s lots of nudity in public art in Seattle. There’s the “Adam” [by Fernando Botero] on Second and Madison with his penis out. There are the naked man and boy sculptures at the sculpture park [Louise Bourgeois’ “Father and Son”]. Seattle’s chill about the Fremont naked bike ride. This is no different.”

Except, apparently, that it was.


The final mural, by Crystal Barbre, at 1510 First Ave.

Enter Ordinance 5.56.230

As she began to layer gesso and oil over the underpainting, Barbre received a worried note from Dunlap. He had discovered ordinance 5.56.230, which states:

No adult entertainment shall be visible outside of the adult entertainment establishment, nor any photograph, drawing, sketch or other pictorial or graphic representation which includes lewd matter as defined in chapter 7.48A RCW or display of sexually explicit material in violation of RCW 9.68.130.

That definition of “lewd matter” does make a specific provision for “works of art or anthropological significance” in the ordinance. So, why was Dunlap concerned?

“The city really does not give us any leeway. And they’re always vague about the definition of the code–or what exactly too much ‘lewd matter’ is,’ Dunlap wrote to me.

FantasiaUnlimited is defined in Washington State lingo as a “moral nuisance.” (RCW 7.48A.020) Any materials associated publicly with that ‘moral nuisance’ can be classified as “lewd matter” and get the business shut down. What’s lewd? “That which the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find, when considered as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.” (RCW 7.48A.010) And they define that prurient interest as “that which incites lasciviousness or lust.”

I began to see why Dunlap was concerned that the provision for artwork in the ordinance was too flimsy to cover Barbre’s planned nipples.

So, let’s consider this. If we’re talking nudity in public art, it’s no problem, because it is covered by the provision for artwork. But if it’s nudity associated with a strip club or sex shop—if its goal is to incite lust—it’s obscene. Even if it’s art.

Barbre’s heart fell when she read the ordinance. As much as she didn’t want to alter her vision of the mural—or capitulate—getting her patron in hot water with the city wasn’t an option. To protect them from any possible legal action, she changed the composition.

“I was literally crying when I was painting these silly little bras on, and when I left the breasts unfinished. I was on my ladder sobbing.”

Why Prohibition Matters

You might be thinking: they’re just nipples. What does it matter?

Barbre would urge you to consider the message behind the prohibition. A sex toy store and strip club that wants to promote a body-positive, sex-positive, female-friendly front; an artist depicting women in control of their bodies and delighting in desire; and a city that allows nudity in public artwork…just not when it’s connected to sex work.

“This prohibition sends a shame message. Sex work is already shamed and stigmatized. It’s one of the few arenas that women can wildly out-earn men, and the State of Washington has strict statutes that make it harder to earn. And visitors can feel judged just walking in the door of a club. This mural was a way to combat this, and bang, we ran into another ordinance that’s specifically aimed at shutting down and shaming sex work.”

I wondered if she considered making a statement, such as painting a bra on the merman as well. Barbre says that she took time off from painting to think about possibilities: painting armor on them, pixelating the torsos, slicing “censored” bars across them. But, she felt that re-oriented the discussion.

“General censorship isn’t the problem. It’s about draconian laws for strip clubs. It’s about how we view strip clubs, sex work, and sex workers.”

Barbre’s Scylla-like figure in the center of the composition boldly faces the viewer, a halo ringing her head and her tentacles drawing the other figures inexorably towards her. She holds your gaze from way above the viewer’s head; challenging, proud, sexual. It’s a pose that gives this nude agency and power, something that Barbre feels is often missing in images we usually see of women.

“We see women’s bodies used to sell jeans, perfume, and it’s always the same body type. It’s always about how to improve your body to please someone else, or titillating the male viewer. I don’t see the woman’s strength in those images. And I wanted to be able to point to an image and say, ‘there it is.’”

To create the mural, Barbre brought together friends from the local arts scene, and held a series of photo sessions—and conversations about what the mural represents. She’s proud of their willingness to be naked in the city’s living room. Now that Barbre’s vision for the piece has been compromised, she says they’re bummed.

“These rules aren’t trying to be a conscious attack on women sex workers, but they sure create the feeling of taking power away. It’s a disappointment that women walking by will see the message here: parts of you are unacceptable, and obscene. It’s extremely hurtful.”

Though Barbre’s frustration is palpable as we talk, those feelings are nowhere in the piece. There’s plenty of power, agency, and passion in her brushstrokes—and I tell her she has done her models and her patron proud. Silly little bras or no, a large portion of her message is radiating loud and clear across First Avenue.

She laughs sadly when I tell her this.

“I’m glad. Maybe I’ll feel that way once I have some distance from it. Art can be powerful and transformative when you allow it to do its job.”


Sarra Scherb an arts writer, gallerist, curator and graphic designer in Seattle. Her writing has appeared in The Stranger, The Toast, Stackedd Magazine and Weave Magazine. She has worked with five Washington museums and four Seattle art galleries, and none of them have caught fire or flickered into a different dimension, so she must be doing something right.She runs around town as Brass Archer: