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News / Northwest

Seattle’s Baso Fibonacci paints on fentanyl foil to make a point

By Margo Vansynghel, The Seattle Times
Published: May 13, 2024, 6:05am

SEATTLE — On a recent cloudy afternoon in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood, Baso Fibonacci dipped the slender tip of his brush into a glob of white gouache and painted the shape of a skull on a scrap of fentanyl-stained aluminum foil.

Someone, at some point, used the foil to smoke fentanyl — you can tell from the trail of brown residue left by the pill on the shiny metal as it heated up. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 50 times stronger than heroin, is one of the most potent and lethal drugs around, and one of the main drivers of what officials across North America call an urgent public health crisis.

In an effort to humanize the crisis and capture how the drug has taken hold in his longtime neighborhood, Fibonacci has adorned more than a hundred pieces of foil with 203 skulls. That’s one skull for each person who died from a fentanyl-involved overdose in downtown Seattle — which he identifies as Pioneer Square, the central business district, Belltown and part of the Chinatown International District — last year, the deadliest year yet. (The total has since been adjusted to 221.) The stark and gripping series “Seattle’s Got the Blues” is on view through the end of the month at Pioneer Square’s Hometeam Gallery. A book with the same title is out this month as well, for sale at the gallery and available in-store and online at Arundel Books starting in June.

The title, Fibonacci says, is a play on words, a reference to a common form of fentanyl: pills sold for cheap on the streets named “blues,” for their distinctive color. “So Seattle literally and metaphorically has the blues,” he said.

Fibonacci has been a central part of the city’s art scene, known for portraits and botanical scenes created in van Gogh-like energetic brush strokes, for more than a decade. But this particular series has touched a nerve, spawning not just an exhibit and book but multiple articles and documentaries as well. “I think people are shocked by fentanyl’s sudden arrival here,” Fibonacci said, “and the work helps crystallize some of what they’re feeling.”

Morbid candor

During an April visit in his studio ahead of the exhibit, Fibonacci was still furiously working long days and nights — paint, eat, sleep, repeat — to reach the exhibit’s macabre total. “It’s less about the individual skulls,” Fibonacci said, “and more about what these say in their entirety, all together as a series, showing … the breadth of how many people have died.”

On his workbench, a pool of black water in the center of a circular plastic paint tray stared up like a pupil amid an iris of whites and grays — the monochrome palette for this series. Nearby lay 50 or so foils scattered on the bench. Fibonacci found these by trawling downtown alleys; others were given to him by former users.

Some of the foils already bore skulls with gaping eye sockets and toothed grimaces. Others remained ghostly white outlines of future craniums. Some didn’t have any paint on them yet, only the telltale brown stains. Once Fibonacci paints the skulls on top, the umber tracks will snake around the skulls like an ouroboros, a ghostly halo forever eating its own tail.

Each tiny piece, perhaps 4-by-4 inches on average, is haunting in its morbid candor. Taken in together, displayed on one wall, they are a solemn reminder of the drug’s devastating impact.

Nationwide, the number of fatal fentanyl overdoses has surged in recent years. Locally, a record 1,087 people died in fentanyl-involved overdoses in King County last year, up from 717 in 2022. Fentanyl-involved overdose deaths now make up more than 80% of all fatal overdoses in the county.

But sometimes you can get lost in those numbers, said Brad Finegood, a strategic adviser on behavioral health for Public Health — Seattle & King County. “To have an artful installation,” he said, where “you can see how big the impact is, is really impactful.”

Portrait of the city

A train whistles as it rumbles loudly across the track outside. From the high windows of Fibonacci’s spacious studio in the heart of Sodo, you can see the top edge of Seattle’s downtown skyline — his longtime stomping grounds.

While he grew up on Tiger Mountain, a rural area in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, and has long painted flora and fauna, Fibonacci — who was born with a different name but has gone by the creative moniker since 2005 — is even more inspired by the city. He spent much of his youth downtown, skateboarding or painting graffiti.

Over the years, that grew into an acclaimed mural practice (you can spot his work all across town). Now he plays chess at Westlake Park or heads to Pike Place Market to grab a bite.

His focus on downtown is an ode to his longtime neighborhood, which he sees as the epicenter of the crisis locally. In a way, he said, this series is “like a portrait of the city.”

Fibonacci painted for the first time on foil about five years ago, for a series on detritus found around his Pioneer Square studio: diner receipts, envelopes, an American flag — and then, a foil scrap used to smoke heroin.

Shortly after, during the height of the COVID pandemic, fentanyl reared its head. “Within six months, it was just foils on the ground everywhere instead of needles,” Fibonacci said. “It was a really pretty shocking thing to have happened so suddenly.”

He’s not just seen the drug’s rise through paraphernalia littering the streets. He also has a personal connection to it: friends who use, or have used. Friends who died. His brother, who used to live on the streets in Seattle and died from a lifetime of heroin use. “I can kind of see him in the people that I see on the streets,” Fibonacci said.

While 52% of people who died of an overdose in King County lived in a location that was privately owned or rented, homeless people and other vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected, according to county data. Often, Public Health’s Finegood said, people turn to fentanyl to relieve the pain of living outside.

Fibonacci hopes his series can compel viewers to compassion. “Just realizing that people that are on the streets using fentanyl are your neighbors,” he said, “and they have hopes and dreams and lives similar to any of your other neighbors.”

And while rave reviews for his work stream in, he cares most about, he said, what people who are actively using think about the series. “I mean, they all know people that have died.”

More than 40% of Americans know someone who has died of a drug overdose, per a recent study by RAND Corporation, a think tank and research institute — a number that shows how far the crisis’s tentacles have stretched.

It’s unclear what’s next. In King County, the number of deaths has seemingly begun to plateau — a sign, perhaps, that we’ve crested the peak, Fibonacci hopes. Still, even as he wraps up his series, people continue to experience overdoses at extremely high rates.

He hopes his series can help make sense of things as the crisis continues to unfold, and, later on, provide a historical record of a grim moment in time. But for now, we may not fully understand it yet. “It happened so fast,” he said, likening it to a war and its devastating effects. “You don’t realize that a war is necessarily starting … until already you’re in the midst of it.”

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