Located southeast of the University of Washington Campus and northwest of the Arboretum, Seattle’s Montlake Cut connects Portage Bay with the larger waters of Lake Washington. This portion of the Lake Washington Shipping Canal was finished in 1917 and soon became a center for water related athletic events and exhibitions. As early as 1921 rowing races and swim meets brought students and the public to the slopes of the canal to enjoy the excitement of outdoor spectacle.
Evidence of the athletic activities that color the Cut’s history can be seen emblazoned in paint along the low seawall that lines the edges of the waterway. Not city sponsored or commissioned works, these marks are the tags and signatures of the rowing teams that visit this waterway to race in the annual Opening Day regatta. Inscriptions in bright hues call out bragging rights of past victors, and threats from up and coming underdog competitors. The history of painting the cut actually pre-dates the Opening Day Regatta, which began as a rowing competition in 1970. Photographs from King County show numbers painted on the walls of the cut, presumably belonging to graduating classes at the UW, from as early as 1949. The assertion of ownership over these waters by the athletes that test their grit upon them continues today, and is largely uncontested by authorities and neighboring residences.
On the Cut’s south side, affluent homes afford lawns and yards that extend down to the concrete walkway along the water’s edge. This scene is strangely juxtaposed with the drippings from spilled paint and crudely written messages below. One might attribute this phenomenon to the exuberance and arrogance of youth: students claiming a portion of the city for their own. However, it is not only the college and high school crews who grace the walls of the cut with their signatures. Rowing as a club sport is quite popular in Seattle. Some clubs take pride in their middle age and older memberships and dub themselves with monikers such as ‘Martha’s Moms’ and ‘The Ancient Mariners’. And yes, these respectable adult crews also splash the Cut with colors and symbol: declaring their past victories and claims to future dominance over the world of other lifelong rowers.
The tradition of painting the waterways graced by long and elegant rowing shells is not confined to Seattle. The Charles River in Boston, and the seawall of Tampa Bay, FL are plastered with emblems and names of visiting and local crews. All in these cities however, do not embrace this display of amateur athletic territoriality. Newspaper articles show a divided public over whether or not these displays are art, emblems of civic pride, or merely unwanted graffiti. Such disagreements may exist in the Seattle culture, however they don’t appear to stop the 100,000 or so individuals that line the shores of the Cut in annual appreciation of the Husky Crew and the Opening Day Regatta!