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Belltown Messenger #70 - August 2009

ELAINE BONOW reminisces about 40 years of art
Billy King's Magic Circus
August 1, 2009

We went to the atelier of Billy King which is smack dab in what he refers to as “ Lower Belltown,” on the edge of the Market at Lenora and Western to see just what this artist cat had going on. I have been a friend of Billy’s since our days attending the UW in the era of the “Summer of Love.” Billy is fully immersed in the twenty-first century. I am notified of his many exploits through Facebook. He stays in touch with the world via He takes videos with his FLIP™ video camera. He has so many progressive ideas we would need a week just to touch on his interests. We stand in front of the back wall of the showroom and I ask…

EB: What does this wall represent?

BK: This is salon style hanging, my Wall of Small, and these are a variety of pieces from 2009, from the Chapala Boats, going all the way to the Skagit Valley scenes. There are faces, there are nudes, geometries, and it’s a little bit of everything. When I went to rich people’s homes, I would go the bathroom, and through the hallway I would notice that the works they liked the most were the small paintings, a little small Mark Tobey, not the big splashy paintings. Sometimes the really powerful art is done small. Small pieces can be more important than big and this is my attempt to create important art on a small scale.

EB: I never even thought about that but you have big art here also.
BK: Well, I don’t know if the big art is any more important than the small pieces. Every year I do a show, usually most of my new work and some of the old but this space is so big that I have forty years worth of art work down here that goes back to 1968.
(We stand around for a few seconds admiring ourselves in the camera and this gives Billy pause for a thought).

BK: I don’t understand why we don’t have more computer TV shows. We’d use this little camera; everyday we’d meet here and turn on the camera, and do a little TV shows.  It’s so easy. Then once a day at three o’clock people go on line and we’re live.
EB: But we would need a place on the web.
BK: That would take care of its self. That’s the thing that is happening right now. It’s so democratic. All’s you need is a free blog and people will follow.

EB: What would you like to say on that web cast?
BK: Well, it’s everything from a kid’s show and clowns, to recipes, advertising and public alerts. What do people who don’t have a real job have to do at three in the afternoon?

EB: Let’s talk about art and you. People get to know you when they come in and talk to you. I‘ve known you for many years now but I don’t know where you were born.
BK: Coos Bay, even though some people think I was born in Spokane. I moved to Seattle in 1966 from Spokane.

EB: You went to the U then and that’s where we met.
BK: And I thought I was gonna join a fraternity and be a big man on campus. Like I said, I was from Spokane and within a week I had been sorta radicalized. By that winter, I was smoking pot and not much later taking acid. I went down to San Francisco. Joe Cain, Jeff, and I brought the peace sign back and by late 67, I had dropped out and moved to Pioneer Square. I was working on the railroad. I got my first studio in December.

EB: I didn’t think anybody at that time had a job.
BK: I’ve always had a job of some sort up till 1994-95 when I started making a living as an artist. I was a bartender and a cab driver, a swamper, janitor, everything, ad sales. I’ve done all that kind of work, plus painting but I moved to Pioneer Square by ‘68. It was a gay district by night and a wino district by day and it was incredibly wild and crazy.

EB: People don’t realize that sane people didn’t come down to the market.
BK: The busses didn’t stop on First Avenue. It was bum heaven down here. There were six hundred and some taverns in the downtown Seattle area. The place was just crawling with alcoholics. Most of the people who live here now are imports, people new to town.

EB: But don’t you think that’s what they are trying to do now, move out all the people who don’t fit into the vision of modern downtown.
BK: I mean there are hardly any Type A personalities left in The Pike Place Market and that’s what the Type B’s used to go into the bars to see operating and acting out. They were the ones who made bars interesting. Now they are full of Type B personalities and it’s sorta boring. Raise your voice, circulate from group to group, or hustle drinks or whatever type A’s do and that’s not happening anymore. Type A’s were alcoholics, and drug addicts and winos, dine-os, dingbats, and aristocrats. The aristocrats would come slum. That’s how I met Victor Steinbrueck, Ibsen Nelson and Fred Bassetti, the famous architects who renovated the Market. They would come slum in the Market, hang out at the Victrola or the Hideout and maybe get us to sell em a couple of joints. That’s how those people became part of that underworld of the Pike Place Market.

EB: Yeah, people used to come to the Market to buy horsemeat.
BK: Only the poor people would come down, get the beat up onions, and beat up apples. There were a lot of heavy thumbs down here in those days. This was a low-end market area but it was extremely romantic. There were bars everywhere, there were views of the water, things were extremely inexpensive and it was as close as we had to anything that wasn’t like the rest of the United States. It was a little bit like Europe, a little bit like New Orleans. When we had our festivals, like the old soapbox derby, it would bring out all the shut-ins, people who never leave their rooms. We could actually drink beer from a brown paper bag and the cops wouldn’t say anything. This was the Magic Circus. There was a dividing line that went right down the center of First Avenue and everybody knew about it. Once you crossed that dividing line you weren’t allowed to run your game in the Pike Place Market---no pimping, no dealing, no racial attitudes. None of the bullshit was allowed to happen. When you went on the other side, shit happened, fights happened, there were problems.

The dine-os were the guys looking for the best food at the cheapest prices. You could get 2 eggs, hash browns and a cup of coffee for forty-five cents. There were lots of places where you could eat breakfast served all day. And you could get fried smelt. Seattle was a steak and baked potatoes town in those days. No one ate salmon. Only hippies ate salmon. And then the 80’s happened, and people started coming downtown, that’s when the Market sorta caught on and became extremely popular, and it hasn’t died down since.

EB: You used to be mayor of the Market, right?
BK: I was mayor of the Market, an invented job, in the 70’s on into the 80’s I eventually appointed a new mayor who has had the job for a long time, Michael Yeager. I appointed him based on his mirth, birth and girth.

EB: In Pioneer Square you were instigative in creating a gallery scene down there.
BK: You know studio space was so cheap then. You had your studio and you knew where there were two or three others that you could get if you got thrown out of this one, which happened all the time. The whole thing started in Pioneer Square that was old town in the 60’s. It started up in the Market in the 70’s. The new scene was the Belltown art scene and that really was in the 80’s. Belltown became an art center and there were some real powerhouses that embraced Belltown.

EB: You used to throw parties in the Market.
BK: I was the partymiester. We used to have Beggars Banquets in the Market. George would give us 20 bucks and you’d end up with a couple of pounds of shrimp and some baked chickens and a lot of vegetables. We had a giant mirror that came out of the Green Parrot and we put that food down out in my studio behind the old Bistro, and I’m talking drinking and drugging and nudity that is still talked about to this day. Nobody was working. The Market was full of hippies who liked to drink beer and party and smoke pot in the daytime. One of the groups that got started was the crafts people. Joe Desimone said “if you’re making the product then I’ll rent you some space.” So there’s some guy up there making fur bikinis and someone making belts and that was part of the urban hippie thing, a different kind of longhaired person.

EB: What made you move part time to Mexico?
BK: I’ve been going to Mexico since the early 70’s and I find if you are gonna live successfully in Seattle you have to get a little sunshine in winter. I go ten days to seven months to Mexico. It has great beaches; great food, great weather, great history, varied topography and the people are nice. I like the pace, plus to leave the Northwest and discover the colors of Mexico, as I did in the 70’s, completely changed my career as an artist. Mexico also has this attitude that if you are an artist find a space and put your name above the door and deal with who comes in the door and that’s why I’ve done this show. I’m available; I’m accessible as an artist. You who likes art, we’re gonna meet and talk about my art. There doesn’t have to be a director or somebody in between. That’s something I learned from Latin America.

EB: You are going to have this place for how long?
BK: June 21 through September 21, but I am talking to Allegra Properties. They have several vacancies and I see an historic opportunity bring artists who are displaced by the economy back into downtown Seattle into these empty storefronts. To encourage them to have a non-profit center for the arts something halfway between the Sculpture Garden and the Market that local residents could go to after work that doesn’t require then to buy a drink, that could actually be intellectually entertaining and not necessarily expensive. For some people this could be a major art experience of their lives.

Because of the size of this space and the prominent location, people think that I’m some sort of big deal. And that’s part of the humor of the thing. We talk about the origins of the art about the ideas. Sometimes I give instruction to kids who are interested in how to paint. It’s real interactive, it’s what the applause or the love the entertainer feels, being able to interact with people and being in a room with my art is very positive.


Billy King’s Summershow 2009 “40 Years Of Art”, is at 2100 Western Ave. until Sept. 21. You will stop in and take a look. You will sit down and chat with Billy. He is in the showroom everyday and has a formal opening every Friday from 5-7 PM.

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