Tucked behind the Madison Park Technical Vocational School and the O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science is a masterpiece. With over 1,500 square feet of concrete walls, this abandoned alcove between science classrooms and athletic fields has been transformed into a four-sided graffiti instillation. The space is the backside of Boston’s 1970’s fascination with brutalism- the precast concrete exterior of the schools was designed by Modernist architect Marcel Breuer.
There is no signage directing patrons to these expansive murals. This museum is for the students at O’Bryant and Madison who pose profile pics in front of “Black Dynamite.” It is for the shuffling heroin addicts who pause on their pilgrimage from Dudley to an overgrown parcel across from the Boston Police headquarters. And, it is for a reverential graffiti community who celebrate this audacious undertaking of love, time, and a Kickstarter campaign. Two of the artists who painted life into “The Lab,” Geo and Luis, gave a tour of the murals and a vision for public art in an ever-changing Boston.
What was the inspiration for painting these walls?
Geo: Well, I went to Madison, and studied in the graphic design program. There was one teacher who really kicked me in the ass, and she pushed me to do good. At that time there were three pieces back here. I really enjoyed coming out and studying the art: looking at the lines, perspective. I didn’t know them at the time, but the pieces were by Vex, Hops, and Tchug. Right here, at my school!
Then a few years ago, I heard from a Pop Warner football coach how bad the space was. I saw his kids warming up here, but it didn’t even look like the same place. The pieces had been buffed over, and there was a mess of tags on the walls. It was disgusting. Needles, people just treating it like trash; shit in the corner. I really wanted to get this space back; that’s where the idea of “The Lab” started.
Luis: We treat the space as something important, and it gets treated the same way. After we had been painting at the Clutch Works in Mission Hill for a few months, a man approached us and said he owned one of the condos overlooking the wall. He came down to meet us, and thank us, because no one had been tagging up his fences. Our art had stopped folks from writing on his fence. Not to dismiss the importance of taggers, but it’s amazing to see the respect shown when a mural goes up.
Did you plan out the walls beforehand, intending to use Kickstarter for funding?
Luis: One thing that is awesome about graffiti is to come to a space and not necessarily know what will happen. Once you’ve been painting for some years, the attitude is, “we fit in where we need to fit in.” So, we basically just moved wall to wall. We were going to stop at the corner, where the columns are. But, we then decided to keep painting, and experiment with all these curved surfaces.
Geo: We view one side as an educational wall, since it faces the bleachers. Over there’s a science part, and Mikey incorporated math elements into his piece. The plan is to have the murals stay up for a while. On the opposite wall, the idea was to have a wall we can constantly change by inviting people to jam and paint.
The painting started the summer of 2013, and it was a slow start before Kickstarter. It was easy to get the space from the school and city, easy to get the artists to participate. I invited Hops to come down, and paint, as a way of reaching back to what the walls had been. He had a large crew interested. They paid for their way here, but we can’t cover their ride, or where to stay, or even to feed them. We wanted a way to pay for paint. And scaffolding. Kickstarter was a way just to supply something for all the time they were giving.
Luis: Graffiti is a large undertaking, with most coming out of pocket. And we have families now. The shark mural we did at Clutch Works? It came out to over $1000. We can’t do a large mural every 6 months.
Geo: Yeah, we can’t be, “Honey, I’m going to spend $50 on paint, and two days at the wall.” That doesn’t work anymore.
Luis: What’s dope about these walls is that instead of charging, they are right here. For free.
How did you get started with graffiti?
Luis: For me, I’ve been painting for over 20 years. It’s funny, you know, I grew with graffiti: from a punk ass kid, into a punk ass adult. To this day I look at spots, and think, “I could hit that.”
Graffiti is a move in the shadows mentality. That’s why an artist will tell you their real name long before their tag name. It’s almost like their real name is their persona, and tag name is real life.
Geo: I’ve only been painting for three years; I mean I’ve been drawing since high school, and in college, but only for a little with graffiti. Growing up, my family had lots of artists. We all tried to be better than each other. Really, that was what motivated me to become better.
Luis: I started with a diamond graffiti S, using three lines. People wanted to have me do that S for their name. It took off. I then got the opportunity to paint on some prestigious walls. Especially Peters Park in the South End. So many people wanted to paint there. It started with a crew there [ALA Collective], and some type of partnership with a guy at City Lights. He protected us, and when the police took our paint, he went and got it back.
Graffiti saved my life plenty of times. Walking through Mission Hill, Castle Square, or Cathedral, it was cool to be an artist and it kept me safe. Legitimately, some of my friends shot at some of their friends, but it wasn’t an issue for me because I wasn’t a part of that life. Funny thing? My going out at night with graffiti, kept me away from what some of my friends were doing. I say it all the time, graffiti kept me alive.
How does graffiti fit in the Boston art world?
Luis: What I’ve noticed is that there is a big divide. Either the art fits into a category that people can deal with, or it is just ignored. There’s not a lot of cross. Here’s a good example: there was a Barry Magee show, a guy who started as a graffiti artist. In his show he had pictures and black books of artists from Boston, but those weren’t the artists at the show. Some artists are recognized, while most aren’t.
One day, we’re painting on Centre Street. Folks are coming up, excited. But they got really excited talking about Banksy. He had hit a rooftop or something. Now, how much more effort did he put in with a one-color stencil versus a color piece that I just gave you. It is what it is: either it fits in a box and is accepted, or you’re in this box and it’s not.
Geo: Still, Clutch Works became a stop for people to check out; Peters Park was another place. It became a place where people would battle, friendly competition. It was dope. But, everything is changing.
Luis: Exactly. Every Sunday, there would be 50 people hanging out, watching 2 dudes painting. Gradually there became some tension with folks wanting something different in the park, feelings from the dog walkers and tennis players. Then the wall was torn down. The one that’s still there, the one with the Katrina mural? It used to be larger and crews would paint both sides.
So, is there a possibility that city involvement with public art helps? Bartlett Yards, for example?
Geo: Bartlett was dope. I met so many artists in that space. We need more places like that, and it makes the art community stronger in Boston.
Luis: But there was one thing that was lost at Bartlett: communication with the community. When you come to a space, and change that space, you need a certain amount of outreach. I learned that as you have conversation with people, that space gets more and more loved. And brings the support you need. When we started at Clutch Works, 12 years ago, folks and cops would harass us. At the end of it, cops were coming by and taking pictures of the walls. You have to make sure you have conversations to build that.
Is that what created some resentment over the Boston Strong mural at Bartlett?
Luis: Roxbury still has some closed-in feelings. At the beginning, artists came from outside, into Bartlett, and it was strange. Those feelings needed to be addressed before paint went up, and it could have gone better.
People just didn’t care for the Boston Strong mural on Washington St. There was an attitude of, “people get killed all the time- why isn’t there a mural based on that?” But over at the Clutch Works, we placed a Boston Strong mural over an advertising space. You know, the community was thankful; it was a totally different reception.
Again, this is why the conversation with the community is so important. You can’t just set up art, leaving the people who will need to care for the art to the wolves.
Is it a paradox that graffiti can operate within a world of permits and regulations?
Luis: If you stay true to the rules of graffiti things work well. For instance, in this space, you won’t go over a piece unless you can do better. But how do you tell a 14 year old to go somewhere else; how can that be regulated?
Open spaces are great, but anarchy isn’t. When you have spaces that don’t have restrictions, certain things do happen that put a bad light on the space. For us, we don’t paint religion or politics. Those are topics that can be taken far to the left or to the right. We just paint fly shit.
Final thought. I think about all of the empty lots in Dorchester and Roxbury. Why not put up a wall? In an empty lot, one that’s overgrown with grass, stake a sign that says, “take care of it or it gets taken over.” If nothing changes, put up a wall there. Those spaces need to be trimmed down, maintained, and it will grow into something as beautiful as a garden.
Geo: When Boston gets there, it will be real dope.