Daniel Galvez painted the colorful, multicultural mural that adorns the outer wall of the Middle East back in 1992—which, he laughs, makes it older than many of the people who take tickets or serve drinks at the restaurant and nightclub today.
The California native returned to the city this month to begin restoring his mural, which has seen a bit of wear and tear in the 24 years since the Cambridge Arts Council first invited him to paint a piece at the intersection of Mass. Ave. and Brookline Street.
“I wanted a piece that was reflective of Cambridge,” Galvez says of the inspiration for the mural. While he isn’t from Cambridge, Galvez immediately recognized how much the city had a lot in common with his California home in terms of the diversity and vibrancy of people and cultures here. “I wanted something that reflected the neighborhood and the community.” The self-proclaimed “old-school” mural artist’s philosophy has been largely inspired by Diego Rivera, whose lively frescoes were meant to address and be viewed by all people, regardless of their education level, or literacy, or their ability to afford a ticket to a museum.
“My concept was the same thing,” Galvez explains. “It’s in your neighborhood, it’s where you live, and it’s art that’s there to affect your life—to enhance it, make it more enjoyable.”
To get a better sense for that community, Galvez sent his friend, photographer Jeffrey Dunn, out to photograph the people of Cambridge. Dunn attended festivals and dropped by local stores to shoot portraits of shop owners, and it’s those faces you see decorating the Middle East’s exterior today. “Looking at it, it should touch you in some way, by either recognizing who some of the people are or getting a feeling that it’s reflective of your neighborhood,” Galvez notes. An East Indian woman Galvez painted on the building’s lefthand side was photographed dancing at an international fair; many of the children pictured grew up just down the street from the Middle East. The little boy on the mural’s left is 28 now—he’s the son of Brookline Lunch owner Jamal Abu-Rubieh.
Galvez also wanted to honor the building that would house the mural, which is why music plays heavily into the work as well. There’s a singer, a drummer—a saxophone player whose instrument has seen some of the worst damage.
“My friend Jeff—the photographer—he was like, ‘It’s looking bad! When can you come out?'” Galvez laughs. He was more than happy to; he loves this city and the Middle East staff, who have been feeding him and housing him for the 10 days he’s spent doing the first round of repairs.
Galvez is a busy guy, and he’s currently working on a number of different projects around the country. So he’s prepping the mural for repairs this month—sealing up the cracks, fixing initial water damage—and plans to return in August 2017. When the restorations are complete, the piece will look exactly the way it did when it was first finished; Galvez still has the original photographs and reference materials he used to paint it in 1992.
And if you want to catch him in action, he’ll be scaling scaffolding and spackling over holes through this Saturday.
“It touches my heart, everybody that drops by,” Galvez says. “There was this guy in a big street sweeper—a big, monster machine—he stopped at a red light and rolled down his window and said, ‘You’re not gonna paint that out, are you?’ It’s worth restoring. It has a lot of sentimental value.”