Living on the Edge: My First Experience at Graffiti Alley

I don’t know why I was nervous. When I first caught sight of the stainless steel cage consuming the center of the art store, I couldn’t help but start fidgeting.

So I decided to take a lap. While pretending to browse the scrapbook aisle, I pulled out my phone and whispered, “Siri, how old do you have to be to buy spray paint?”

Siri confirmed for the tenth time that day that, yes, I was old enough. This is ridiculous, I muttered to myself. Don’t be a baby, suck it up.

“What was that?” Siri asked.

Luckily, no one else was in the scrapbook aisle to witness this unfold. I put my phone away in shame, determined to get my paint and leave. I found a nice looking employee, who unlocked the cage and gave me a can. Everything was going smoothly until checkout, when the lady at the counter put down the scanner and casually asked the one question I couldn’t answer.

“What do you need the spray paint for?”

My face flushed, and I started smiling maniacally like a crazy person. Ask anyone who knows me and they will confirm that I’m a terrible liar. I looked from the can of spray paint back to the cashier and stuttered, “Oh, um, nothing. Just a poster board for a, umm, school project.”

Somehow the lie worked, and I walked out of the store suspiciously clutching a paper bag like the criminal I was about to become. I did not buy the spray paint for a school project—I was on my way to graffiti a wall.

In between 565 and 567 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge is an alleyway dedicated to street art. A 24-hour open air gallery, its entrance is identified by two signposts, one reading “Richard B. ‘Rico’ Modica Way,” and the other “Graffiti Alley.” Visitors enter to find a passageway bursting with life. Decorated in graffiti, the alleyway highlights the beauty of ephemerality, and celebrates the vibrancy and creativity of the people of Boston.

One side features a mural commissioned by the city in 1997, consisting of a collage of black and white photos of people and places around Central Square. The other side serves as an empty canvas for artists and visitors to paint freely, bursting with bold shapes, scribbles, and drawings that are constantly being updated. A plastic “stained glass ceiling” adorns the alley, and casts colorful shadows onto the already lively walls.

Graffiti Alley attracts everyone, from artists, to tourists, to locals, who use the passage as a shortcut to the public parking lot on the other side of the street. The site is referred to by many as one of the Boston’s “most Instagrammable” spots, and is a perfect location for updating one’s social media with “edgy” pictures.

By the time I got there the sun was beginning to set. Gazing at the wall in front of me, I looked for an empty space to leave my mark. Selecting a spot near the bottom, I took out the can and pressed down. A soft spray of paint released, quickly covering the wall with a new layer of color. I had no idea what to draw, and have zero artistic ability, so I quickly scribbled a lopsided smiley face and signed my name.

After I finished, I stepped back cautiously, and looked from side to side. I was surrounded by people, but no one looked angry or upset at what I had done. So I put the can back in the paper bag, and headed onto Massachusetts Ave. Before I rounded the corner, I turned to look back down Graffiti Alley. At the bottom of the wall, my smiley face was already lost amid the chaos of colors surrounding it. I don’t know how long it will last before another drawing takes its place, but that smiley face will forever connect me to the city.

Next time I go back, I won’t be afraid to leave my mark, and, hopefully, I’ll come up with something a little more creative to add to the wall.

Featured  Image by Grace Ann Nofziger / For The Heights