Seattle’s first residential neighborhood sits at the edge of downtown, a stone’s throw from I-5, and steps from Capitol Hill’s busy Pike/Pine Corridor. To some, First Hill is a pass-through neighborhood—a place you encounter when en route to someplace else. But it’s a heavily populated hamlet that’s getting denser, and new local hangs are popping up more frequently than in years prior. People who know First Hill know it’s packed with hidden (in plain sight) gems. There’s George’s Deli, home of the heartiest sandwich you’ll find for $8, The Hideout, a craft cocktail lounge with art-covered walls, and Quarter Lounge, a locals’ favorite dive. Known as “Profanity Hill” and “Pill Hill,” First Hill is also home to the always-free Frye Art Museum, St. James Cathedral, and a trauma center made Hollywood-famous after inspiring the hospital in Grey’s Anatomy.
Local artist Nathan Watkins says that First Hill has a unique beauty that’s hard to find elsewhere in Seattle.
“The architecture’s ornate ornamentation gives off a sense of humility rather than ostentation,” he says. “The buildings are stunningly worn, but they’re not so old-fashioned that it’s difficult to place yourself within their histories.”
If you spend any time at all in First Hill, whether you’re breathlessly walking east along Madison Street from downtown or riding through on a Metro bus, Watkins’s art is all around you. In recent years, his public artworks depicting First Hill have become a common sight in the neighborhood. His digital, minimalistic, vibrant prints cover 72 concrete columns called along James Street under I-5—one of his proudest achievements. Watkins earned the opportunity by winning a large public vote, and Sunset Over First Hill was installed 100 Urban Artworks volunteers in 2017.
“Sunset Over First Hill created a transformative space. When you pass through, it forces you to be a little more joyful and to acknowledge your transition into a different part of the city,” Watkins says. “It breathes life into the urban landscape which—despite having beauty of its own—people can become numb to.”
Elsewhere in First Hill, 17 signal boxes are covered in Watkins’s works. They highlight neighborhood landmarks, as well as more nuanced details represented in First Hill’s architecture and plant life. One of Watkins’s favorite signal box designs is at Minor Avenue and Madison Street and features Frye Art Museum’s gallery wall. He made frequent trips to the Frye as a student at Seattle U, and gets extra enjoyment because he snuck a simplified recreation of one of his own paintings, a self-portrait, into his interpretation of the gallery wall.
Designs for five more signal boxes are in the works, which means you might catch Watkins “scene-hunting” for inspiration around the neighborhood.
“I take my camera and just wander around First Hill until something catches my eye,” he says. “I go at different times of the day or season. Sometimes scenes that seemed bland at first turn out to be gorgeous with just a little shift in lighting, weather, or vegetation.”
Watkins moved to Seattle in 2013 to study graphic design at the First Hill-adjacent Seattle University. Since graduating in 2017, the self-described workaholic has been a full-time freelance graphic designer and illustrator creating products for brands like Seattle City Light, his alma mater, and the First Hill Improvement Association—which he works closely with on the I-5 columns and signal box installations.
He frequently creates digitally, but Watkins is also passionate about fine arts and enjoys working with graphite, ink, oil, and acrylics. His approach to making art is preplanned, precise, and intentional. Every detail reflects rationality and control to get the viewer to look exactly where he wants them to and, hopefully, experience the full effect that he set out to create.
“I create guidelines for each piece, like restraining the amount of colors I’ll use or the amount of detail to take out or put in. By restricting myself, I’m forced to make choices that often lead to interesting results,” Watkins says. “It also makes me think seriously about each decision and whether it will lead me to my goal or just add visual clutter.”
Watkins is particularly inspired by St. James Cathedral, which he calls First Hill’s most striking building by far—inside and out—and one of the most stunning structures in all of Seattle. Freeway Park, an urban park and brutalist architectural gem that opened in the 1970s, is also high on his list of must-sees.
“I’m not religious, but it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed with awe and inspiration when you walk inside St. James Cathedral,” he says. “The intricacy in the interior of the building is completely breathtaking.”
For more than four years—from when he arrived in Seattle through summer 2017—Watkins lived in the neighborhood that has inspired much of his work. Not uncommon in the area, Watkins moved further out of the city’s core as rents soared. A West Seattle resident now, he says that every time he drives into First Hill, he opts for the James Street exit to see Sunset Over First Hill.
If he were to create works representing his new community, a neighborhood where blaring ambulance sirens are noticeably absent compared to First Hill, Watkins says the outcome would be completely different.
“I could use the abundant nature in West Seattle as a source of inspiration, but I don’t think I could capture the neighborhood as identifiably and unambiguously as I have been able to with First Hill.”