On the first day temperatures rose above 40 in January, clusters of street artists arrived at “Graffiti Alley” in Central Square, staking out a space among dozens of colorful spray cans.
They had come out to contribute to The Wall, an ever-evolving art installation lining the corridor between Central Kitchen and Hilton’s Tent City.
The Wall is a rarity—it is the only place in the greater Boston area where graffiti artists can paint without fear of being arrested.
Street artist Merkaveli, who grew up a few blocks away from Central, says he’s been painting in the alley at least twice a month since it opened in 2007.
“Whenever I have some free time or leftover colors I try to stop by,” he says. “It’s the only place around here that is open.”
It’s so well known these days, he says, that friends from out of town and even out of the country make the trip to Cambridge to paint. And his work crossed international boundaries last year when one of his works stayed on the wall untouched for almost 11 months.
“It’s kind of crazy because some people won’t even wait for the paint to dry on a piece before painting over it,” he says.
That piece, a cartoon-style woman, became so popular that a girl in Japan sent him a photo of a likeness painted on her fingernails.
“She saw a picture from the wall and used it as inspiration,” he says. “The Central Wall is amazing, and I think it’s opened up the artform around here.”
He points to a younger artist who paints under the name ‘Wake.’
“He’s 12 now and he only started because he had a place to paint,” Merkaveli says. “That wouldn’t be possible if there was no wall.”
The Origin Story
Co-creator of the wall and local artist Geoff Hargadon says the idea for an open space for artists to display their talents came to fruition over a few beers with restaurateur Gary Strack, the owner of Central Kitchen and its upstairs neighbor Brick and Mortar.
In the 25 years the two have known each other, they’ve curated several art pieces around Cambridge—some more off-the-books than others—including, most recently, the IDEO building on Prospect Street.
Hargadon and Strack invited over 30 artists to come to Cambridge and paint in the alley next to Central Kitchen in October 2007, according to Hargadon. Artists came from all over, he says, including New York, Baltimore, and even Canada.
Hargadon and Strack paid for travel, put several artists up, and supplied some of the materials to get the graffiti started.
In those first few days of painting, Strack says he and Hargadon just sat back and enjoyed the art as it was sprayed onto the walls.
“Since then it has become a place for many others to express their ideas nearly without constraints,” Hargadon says. “Gary had this boring, beige wall on the side of his restaurant, and we thought it would be cool to open it up.”
“It’s hard to imagine, but 10 years ago, street art or graffiti was not a well recognized form of art,” Strack says. “There was no celebrity status attached and Geoff and I just shared this love for the art, although we pursued it in different fashions.”
Since its inception, The Wall has drawn internationally known artists—think Shepard Fairey, Swoon, Stikman, Michael De Feo, Gaia, MOMO, Judith Supine, and Matt Siren—and amateurs alike to Central Square.
Laws of the Land
Graffiti artists are often very territorial, Strack says, a tendency that has continued even with an open and free wall to paint on.
Buffalo transplant and street artist Disco Rico staked out a spot along the wall just off of Mass. Ave. to work on two pieces: “a nondescript human expressing the idea of a beautiful mind” and a Lego minifigure lifting off his own head.
“It’s great to have a place where we can express ourselves and just enjoy the art,” he says. “I love it as a patron and producer. I like to come on off days, and I try to be strategic if there’s something cool I want to say, so the weekend crew can come and check it out.”
“The unspoken rule is if you can’t make it better then leave it alone,” he says, adding, “I know that’s subjective.”
Another unspoken rule, Hargadon says, used to be that you couldn’t paint on the opposite wall, but that unofficially ended last year.
“That property was vacant for so long, people just started painting and it hasn’t really stopped since,” he says.
There’s also no painting after 5:30 p.m., so as to not negatively affect the restaurant, Strack says. Finally, no ads are allowed.
Strack says that while there was an effort at the start to curate the wall and bring specific artists in, that has given way to the more free-form management of the wall today.
“We’re always talking to different people and there are a few big names but this is really a passion project for me and Geoff,” Strack says. “We like to keep it a bit guerilla.”
While graffiti has become more mainstream in recent years—“It’s not uncommon to see a first grade class in the summer out there looking at the art,” Strack says—Hargadon hopes to bring more artwork to Cambridge, especially in Central Square.
“We have a few things up our sleeves, but nothing definite yet. It’s too early to talk about it,” he says.
“Central is the more open-minded neighborhood in Cambridge and we’re happy to have The Wall here,” he says. “The cool thing is it’s always changing, growing, and that brings people back.”,
Street artist DISM, a New Jersey transplant, says he arrived in Cambridge two years ago and has tagged the wall at least 100 times since the move.
Admiring his most recent work, a large name tag on the wall, he says he’s appreciative of the Central Wall and its unique setup.
“I wish there were more spots like this,” he says. “Even though this wall is a free-for-all, it’s still about respect. If you can’t do something better then you don’t go over it.”