What Happened to Boston’s Graffiti Scene?

Cambridge’s “Graffiti Alley” Offers Rare Legal Wall Space for Local Street Artists

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In an alleyway just off of Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge’s Central Square, layers of bright acrylic paint cake the walls so thickly it is almost impossible to see the faint outline of the bricks beneath. The passageway, named the Richard B. Modica Way but better known as “Graffiti Alley,” is a rare spot in the Boston Area where graffiti artists can paint without fear of reprisal.

Credit for the idea of the wall belongs to local artist Geoff Hargadon, and Gary Strack, a restaurateur who own the business behind the western wall of the alleyway. The pair, who have frequently collaborated on artistic project around the city, first invited artists to make a canvas of the wall in 2007, paying the travel expenses of dozens of artists who came from across the country to paint, according to Hardagon. Since then, the wall has become a favorite spot of amateurs and experts alike, drawing names like Shepard Fairey and MOMO. Over time, the eastern wall, which belonged to a vacant building for years before being taken over by a sporting goods store, was layered with graffiti as well.

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The spot has become a well-enough established part of Boston’s wider artistic community that it has helped launch careers. Nepalese-born artist Sneha Shrestha, whose orange-and-purple mural “For Cambridge With Love From Nepal” now towers over Central Square, honed her craft by painting in the alleyway on weekends.

The freedom of the space is in start contrast to Massachusetts’s graffiti laws, which are among the harshest in the country. Graffiti is can by punished with up to three years in a state prison for a felony charge, and up to two years in a house of correction for a misdemeanor. Taggers may also be fined  $1,500, or three times the value of the property they have marked.

Massachusetts Graffiti Laws Among Harshest in New England

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Max Jungreis 2019

BOSTON A survey of the various vandalism laws governing New England reveals the Bay State has some of the harshest possible penalties. Offenders in Massachusetts face two to three years in state prison and $3,000 in fines. The cost can rise even higher if the defendant is fined three times the cost of the defaced property.

Only Connecticut has a more severe possible penalty: Offenders can be sentenced to five years in prison and face fines of up to $5,000. Maine stands out as the best state to be arrested for graffiti, with only a $250 fine that rises to $500 on the second and consecutive offenses.

One thing that makes the commonwealth’s laws unique is the fact that there are laws specifically governing graffiti. In other New England states like Connecticut and New Hampshire, graffiti falls under the more of “criminal mischief” statutes, which are intended to deal with the issue of vandalism more broadly. By contrast, Massachusetts’ laws can distinguish between different types of graffiti. Tagging, generally known as the act of painting or writing ones pseudonym in public places, is recognized in state law as being committed when someone “applies paint or places a sticker upon a building, wall, fence, sign, tablet, gravestone, monument or other object or thing on a public way or adjoined to it, or in public view, or on private property.” Tagging is the most common type of graffiti, and the fact that sticker placement- typically done with post office address labels– can be subject to such harsh penalties may help explain why graffiti is so rare in Boston.


Boston’s Young Graffiti Taggers Risk Harsh Penalties

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A heavily tagged sign on Harvard Avenue in Allston.

BOSTON— Boston’s youngest graffiti artists, caught in a peak moment of street art commercialization, are suffering the consequences of trying to get their work noticed in a city decidedly unfriendly to graffiti.

Last summer, three taggers between the ages of 19 and 20 were arrested by Boston police and charged with felonies. The three were caught individually while tagging mailboxes, an MBTA station, and the BU Bridge.

Graffiti is an especially risky proposition in Massachusetts, which has some of the harshest penalties for graffiti in the country. Graffiti is punishable by up to three years in state prison for a felony charge, and up to two years in a house of correction for a misdemeanor. Taggers can also be fined  $1,500 or three times the value of the property they vandalize.

“You’ve got high school kids, first time in the city, so they put their name on everything,” said Pete Cosmos, a veteran of Boston’s street art scene.

Cosmos said that while the city’s street art stalwarts understand how to avoid drawing the attention of police— Only tagging in areas away from the public eye, targeting abandoned buildings— the rise of social media has incentivized inexperienced taggers to mark up increasingly high-profile areas for the sake of drawing attention online.

“People are just getting out there for the Instagram notoriety,” said Cosmos.  


In the Heart of Allston, Graffiti Still Flourishes

BOSTON– Much of Boston’s graffiti scene has been diminished by police crackdowns over the past decade. But in a small industrial area just north of Beacon Street, taggers and street artists still practice openly.

 

 

 

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If one thing defines Boston’s graffiti scene, it’s how small it is.

Few havens exist in the colonial city for an often-controversial art form that thrives in other coastal areas. Although some galleries and officially sanctioned murals display street art, the socially acceptable offspring of graffiti, the city’s scene seems to be mostly composed of taggers who deface businesses and muralists discreetly practicing in alleyways. Given the disparity between Boston and other major cities, it’s worth asking the question: Why is Boston’s graffiti scene so small?