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Roadside Chat | A canvas for an artist has no limits. Just ask Seattle-based artist Desmond Hansen, who creates amazing murals on SDOT’s signal boxes around town.

Desmond Hansen.

Hansen’s art features pop culture icons and local community members who’ve had a positive impact on people in their area. The signal box murals that Hansen creates are a staple to the Seattle area art scene, showcasing a reflection of community life, and reverberation of SDOT’s mission of instilling vibrancy among city streets to enrich public life and spaces.  

Signal boxes are found scattered throughout the city at intersections. They are large metal boxes that protect the traffic signal controls inside.  

Desmond has a major presence in SDOT’s signal box art program, so we wanted the chance to learn more about the artist behind the work! We spoke to Desmond recently about his background, inspiration, favorite murals, and more.   

Hi, Desmond! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey as an artist? 

I’m an artist who grew up in West Seattle. Born in 1982, I started painting when I was 14, being influenced by graffiti art. In 2016, I decided to pursue a career full-time doing murals and graphics. I’ve focused my style on illustrations and photo realism, but I enjoy designing with every style possible being expressed in my art. From abstract deco art with shapes and colors to structured formulas and portraits, I love creating it all. 

Gary Payton mural. Photo and artist credit: Desmond Hansen.

What inspires your artwork and how did you come to decide to share your art on signal boxes?   

I’m inspired by many forms of art and even nature as well. I decided to paint traffic signal boxes because in my experiences in the city they’re usually adorned with bland gray splotches where you can tell there once lived the names of people our city has facilitated. I found myself wondering what portraits I would do if given the chance. After all, they happen to be the same size and scale as a painting that might have a majestic portrait painted on it displayed above a fireplace in one’s home. So, I decided to talk with SDOT about painting them. I’m a muralist so I’m no stranger to painting on walls and other objects to give them life. 

How’d you find out about the permit program?  

I found out about the permit system through my legal representation and getting his advice, then by just walking into SDOT’s public office and starting the process there. It takes some time to go through the process of applying for a permit. After submitting an application and discussing it with the City, I received the green light to go ahead with the painting! Permits were printed and I was off to the races. I think they have a good set of checks and balances to make sure everything is squared away before permits are issued. 

What tips do you have for people who may be interested in applying for signal box artwork? 

The only tip I have for other artists wanting to paint these boxes is to make sure they carefully prep the traffic boxes before painting them. Remove posters, stickers and tape over any exposed key holes and use drop cloths to keep the surrounding area looking clean and well kept. Also, be prepared for the spectators to honk, ask questions, demand your contact info, even be ready to show your permits to be there painting. Anything and everything can happen when you’re painting murals in public. 

What’s your favorite mural to date? And what’s your favorite mural by another local artist? 

I have a hard time choosing favorites, but I think the 1,000 square foot mural I dedicated to Chadwick Boseman located at 4th and Roy St in the Queen Anne neighborhood could be my personal favorite that I’ve recently painted, followed by the Squatch/Kraken themed mural at Queen Anne Beer Hall at 205 S Thomas St. As for a favorite mural painted by another artist in Seattle, that’s a hard one to decide on because there are some really cool installments that have gone up here in the past decade. The most inspirational to me over the course of my life here is a really old and not very big mural painted by Cause B of BAMKrew. It’s a depiction of the movie “The Dark Crystal” located in the alley behind Dick’s burger restaurant in Queen Anne. This mural is from the 90s and is still there today. I would stare at that thing for a long time as an adolescent kid skateboarding my way to Bumbershoot or Folklife. That painting made me want to be a painter. 

Chadwick Boseman Mural. Photo and artist credit: Desmond Hansen  

What’s your favorite experience while working on a mural project? 

My favorite experience painting a mural has to be while painting as well as unveiling the Squatch/Kraken mural, because the people I met while painting were great, and the unveiling event was awesome. It’s hard to rate my experiences while painting. They’re all so diverse atmospheres and wide ranges of characters I meet. Painting in Hawaii and Germany was really fun too. 

Who inspires you? 

My son Izaiah is my number one inspiration. He draws almost every day now so it reminds me of when my interest in art started. My wife inspires me to take my career serious and cherish the skills and talent I have. My father inspires me to practice as often as possible. Seeing him practice playing his guitar day in day out showed me the dedication it takes to get good at something you feel passionate about. My mother inspires me to keep going even if times are tough. She’s given me strength. Overall though, the people of Seattle keep me inspired. I’ve painted over 60 portraits on these boxes now and each time I’m out there I get all kinds of good vibes, thumbs up, and even people tipping me with their hard-earned money. It’s crazy the amount of love my city shows me. It has made me cry happy tears many times. 

During your next commute in the city, keep an eye out for his mural boxes!

Signal boxes are located all throughout Seattle. Catch the bus or hop on a bike lane and make it a self-guided art tour using the current map of Desmond Hansen box art locations here (map is also shown below)

Current map of Desmond Hansen’s box art locations.

You can find specific murals on Desmond’s Instagram, @DesmondHansenArt and contact Desmond for free art quotes at  

Feeling inspired to share your artwork with your community? You can apply for a FREE Signal Box Permit in just three steps! 

  1. Collaborate with your community (both residents and business owners) and other local artists who may want to help, and come up with inspiration for your design. Look for funding opportunities during this stage as well. 
  1. Make sure to include your neighborhood in the design process. Talk to your community to create a mural that reflects the area’s character or people’s interests. 
  1. Create the design using a provided template on our website and submit your application! 

For more information on the permit application, resources for funding, and general guidelines, check out our signal box artwork page here