Every city has its kink, its pockets of oddball charm like the shag rug underneath the grand piano. Seattle has an entire second subterranean city sunk underneath its streets. New Orleans encourages graveyard tourism. Los Angeles is block after creepy block lifted from a David Lynch film. Boston has Graffiti Alley—funk central in the form of a vertical sandbox devoted to constantly morphing street art.
The alley is a razor’s edge of real estate in Central Square—the scrappier paste-eating Cambridge cousin to Harvard Square just down the road—that runs between the Central Kitchen restaurant and another building of revolving retail. The 80-foot concrete canvas was the weird genius of two friends named Geoff Hargadan and Gary Strack who thought it would be cool for street artists to have a dedicated area to let their talent and vision run amok. As it turned out, Strack owned the perfect space: the Central Kitchen restaurant. Why not give the boring exterior wall something more to do than hold up the building? In 2006 he and Hargadan invited 30 artists they knew from all over the New England area to make their mark (literally) on this little patch of Cambridge.
Word spread as fast as the paintings and soon the visual creep spread to the alley’s adjacent wall. The City of Cambridge eventually embraced the area as a public arts work space and added a plastic, multi-colored “roof” to the alley that rains jewel tones down on the vibrant kaleidoscope of images, sprawling across every inch of exposed brick in the corridor.
I make a habit of passing through Graffiti Alley every few weeks. I love to take in the sheer magnitude and diversity of eye-candy. I have no idea what I’m looking at; I know less than nothing about street art, but I am nursing a conspiracy theory that Bob Ross faked his own death and he is, in fact, Banksy (here’s a happy little machine gun shooting flowers). I don’t need any of it to make sense or look aesthetically pleasing, I just want to stand in the vortex of so much raw, creative expression that ceaselessly shifts, eclipsing itself over and over as if it were art put on perpetual digital loop.
The enormous image of a flower with lightening bolts and lollipops for petals that covered a section at noon might be replaced by a depiction of an alien space craft hovering over a city skyline later that evening. The alley has the winking nature of SnapChat except the OS is pure imagination. It’s an unruly gallery where play rules.
Where else do we celebrate the unpoliced potential of creative expression in such a public and inviting way? Tourists, townies, established artists, and those still dreaming of what they could do with a can of paint and some courage all stalk the alley with different experiences and impressions. The energy is palpable—not just from the images, but from the people walking through who stand around gawking, taking photos and selfies, craning their necks to try and see what’s made it to the top of the walls, or crouching down to check out a design snaking along the curb. Graffiti Alley engulfs us in its tides of creation and entreats us to participate in its joyful and overwhelming sprawl.
I feel lucky to be able to slip through the alley and take a quick hit of inspiration from the people who come to paint knowing nothing they make will last more than a few days or a week at most. Somehow that’s the part that makes Graffiti Alley most compelling. It’s 80-feet of creative philosophy. Show up. Do the work without fretting about critics or how your idea will be received (you’ll never in this space anyway). Remind yourself how it feels to make art for the joy and challenge of it alone. Inspire yourself by drinking in the inspiration of others. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.