“Come see this one! You will be blown away,” urged a passerby as we stood in front of a color-splashed former bowling alley in Lynn, taking photos with an iPhone. We followed him down the block and . . . wow. The towering mural at 23 Central Ave. featured a young man with sneakers slung over his shoulder, by renowned street artist Smug (a.k.a. Sam Bates), of Glasgow. The image was so incredibly lifelike that we wouldn’t have been surprised if the subject, Francois (who lives in the building), stepped right off the wall and onto the street. (Well, maybe a little surprised.)
Our outdoor art tour of the North Shore was off to a good start.
As you wander around downtown Lynn, nearly every turn of a corner reveals a flash of color — another brightly bedecked building. With art museums currently closed, a “street art scavenger hunt” (as our companion called it) is a major spirit boost. Each year, the North of Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau devises a theme to promote the 34 cities and towns of Essex County. “This year, we wanted to celebrate diversity and highlight the public art sprouting up across the county,” says Ann Marie Casey, executive director of the North of Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “[This year] ended up being an unexpectedly opportune time to launch the Mural Map due to COVID-19 — there is no barrier to entry since the art is outside and free to view.”
The in mural map is accessible online (www.northofboston.org/murals), with a grid or map view, and filterable by town or city. Which led us to the mural mecca of Lynn. The group behind Lynn’s colorful transformation is Beyond Walls (www.beyond-walls.org), a nonprofit agency devoted to art-filled, well-lit urban environments. Since 2017, Beyond Walls has partnered with Lynn residents and community organizations to sponsor three street art festivals. The result: 56 wall-size murals created by local, regional, national, and international artists. Participating artists receive a stipend, housing, paint, and other assistance, including certification to use mechanical lifts to scale the buildings. They’re currently looking for talent to create murals and large-scale mixed media art for their 2020 Street Art Tour.
Why Lynn? “The city is widely recognized for its diverse culture and thriving arts scene,” says Beyond Walls CEO Al Wilson. Residents and businesses have responded enthusiastically to the project, which “has helped drive customers to local restaurants, cafes, and other businesses.” Beyond Walls is also working with other Massachusetts locales on similar projects.
We left Lynn in the rear-view mirror and cruised past the ocean through Swampscott and a brief bit of Marblehead, en route to Salem, our next street art hot spot.
Salem’s El Punto (“The Point”) neighborhood is home to the open-air Punto Urban Art Museum, showcasing 75-plus large-scale murals by 50 international and 25 local artists within a three-block radius. The resulting work is cheeky, engaging, and thought-provoking.
Conceived by the North Shore CDC, a nonprofit community development agency, the open-air gallery was created to break down the invisible but undeniable socioeconomic barrier between the neighborhood and the rest of Salem, organizers say. Many of the residents are Latino and immigrants. The North Shore CDC owns 25 percent of the properties in the neighborhood as affordable housing, primarily brick buildings on Lafayette and Peabody streets, and selected artists to create murals and other outdoor art. Artists from the Dominican Republic, Spain, Puerto Rico, and Italy have been part of the effort; these experienced artists mentor local talent. “The art creates an uplifting environment for residents and invites visitors to learn about the neighborhood,” says David Valecillos, the North Shore CDC’s director of design.
A section of the National Grid wall on Peabody Street is devoted to local art. Each year, the art museum puts out a call for New England-based artists, 25 of whom are selected to paint an 8-by-8-foot panel of the wall.
For the Salem 2020 Mural Slam (www.salemartsfestival.com), a dozen local artists created murals at home. These were recently installed on Artists’ Row, a series of brick walls at 24 New Derby St. (across from Old Town Hall and Derby Square.)
Over the bridge in Beverly, the art includes two intriguing — and very different — murals, painted on the brick walls of The Cabot (www.thecabot.org) performing arts center. Facing Judson Street, a three-stories-tall mural depicts a circle of people holding up a chair with another figure standing on it, painted in broad brush strokes by London-based artist Helen Bur. On the wall facing the Organic Garden Café, look for a cartoon-like black-and-white mural of a man sprawled in the grass daydreaming, painted by Alex Senna of Sao Paulo. Bur and Senna were selected from more than 70 artists who applied; fund-raising for the project was a community effort.
“We saw the exterior walls of our theater as a canvas for meaningful art that was reflective of both our nonprofit mission and our community,” says J. Casey Soward, executive director of The Cabot. “The murals were a fantastic opportunity for us to engage with local residents and get to know them better, “ Soward says. During these trying times, “the art serves as a symbol of hope,” he adds.
On painting in public
What’s it like to make a mega-mural in the middle of a city? To Cedric “Vise 1” Douglas of Boston, the artist who painted “Black Madonna” in the heart of Lynn with partner Julz Roth, the community’s reaction made it a joyful experience. Because they weren’t perched sky-high on a lift for this mural, the pair was approachable. “Every day, we had at least 30 or 40 people stopping by, asking us about it,” Douglas says. “Talking to people and connecting with them and thanking them for welcoming us into their community. Maybe it could inspire them to create art, especially the children who came by. We like to use creativity to connect with people.”
They had a speaker playing reggae and salsa music, and situated a bench to face the action. “People got food from a restaurant and came over and watched us paint. Some were freestyling and playing buckets,” Douglas notes. “People from the neighborhood would buy us water, saying, ‘I got you. I love what you’re doing,’ ” he says. “The generosity and gratefulness for what we were doing was astonishing.”
Although they painted the mural in 2017 as part of the Beyond Walls Street Art Festival, “at least once a week, someone tags me or shares it and has a story,” Douglas says. “People say, ‘Her eyes are looking right at me!’ ” of the Madonna. As a mural artist who has worked all over the world (most recently, Haiti and Israel), Douglas has a special fondness for Black Madonna. “I thought it would be good to do a Madonna that people could relate to,” he says. “I wanted to paint a black woman and make her royalty.” To see more of his art, go to www.cedricdouglas.carbonmade.com.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org