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THE VIP LOUNGE

Al Wilson on street art, stick shifts, and Spain

We caught up with the founder of Beyond Walls to talk about all things travel

Al Wilson in Barcelona.
Al Wilson in Barcelona.Handout

Al Wilson, founder of Beyond Walls, a Lynn-based nonprofit that promotes large-scale street art and other artistic mediums reflective of the communities where they are displayed, believes that art is needed now more than ever. “It is reflective of what is going on now and it tells people: You’re not alone . . . your culture and your voice and what you’re going through is a shared experience,” the 43-year-old said. “As much as we’re isolated from each other during these difficult times, we’re in this together.” Wilson and his team have held a popular multicultural street art festival in Lynn for the past three summers, but due to COVID-19, this year’s event was canceled. Instead, Beyond Walls — in partnership with the North Shore-based nonprofit Harbor Voices — has created a new program called Truth Be Told, which gives young people from Lynn an opportunity to share (through a variety of artistic mediums) their personal experiences during the pandemic. Professional artists will then take their images, words, audio presentations, etc. and adapt them to be displayed in public spaces. “Everybody’s been hurting with this, but none are hurting as much as the kids,” he said. “We want them to know that their stories matter and that they are being heard.” Wilson, a Walpole native who now calls Marblehead home, loves to travel and has been inspired by street art from around the world. “Diverse cultures are something to be celebrated and this style of artwork allows the cultures that exist in these cities to be front and center,” he said. “And there’s no barrier of entry: Anyone can walk into a parking lot or walk along the street and not only not have to spend any money to see the art, but keep a social distance.” We caught up with Wilson to talk about all things travel.

Favorite vacation destination?

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Barcelona is among my favorite cities because of the friendly and open people, the amazing food, their top football [soccer] club, Gaudi’s one-of-a-kind style of architecture, and the breathtaking beauty of the Mediterranean. Barcelona’s historic Gothic Quarter, which features art hidden in every nook and cranny, inspired the introduction of mixed media works at the Beyond Walls Street Art Festival.

Favorite food or drink while vacationing?

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Wherever I travel, I always try to eat and drink like a local. Sampling local cuisine helps give me a real sense of place and the culture. It may be snails in Paris, pig’s ears in Jackson, Miss., or bifana in Portugal. Serving local cuisine is one way that people share their stories.

Where would you like to travel to but haven’t?

Though I’ve been lucky enough to travel in Tangier and Fez (in Morocco), I have yet to visit Marrakesh, which is at the top of my next-places-to-go list. I love Moroccan food and culture, the colorful, hand-painted tiles and mosaics, the distinctive music, and the warm and welcoming people.

One item you can’t leave home without when traveling?

Since my parents are from the UK, I spent a lot of time visiting family there and I grew up drinking lots of tea. It may seem strange, but I tend to carry my favorite Yorkshire Gold teabags with me wherever I go.

Aisle or window?

I’m 6 feet 5 inches tall, so the aisle seat is usually the most comfortable option for me, as it allows me to stretch out a bit more than the middle or window seat. If it is a shorter flight, I prefer a window seat so I can take in the landscape.

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Favorite childhood travel memory?

When I was 15 or 16 years old, I went on an impromptu fishing trip with my uncle on the River Severn in Wales, the longest river in Great Britain. Tired after spending the day fishing in the beautiful countryside — and having enjoyed a few pints of hard cider — my uncle wanted to take a nap. So he allowed me to drive back to our family home in Walsall, which is just outside Birmingham. For a kid, driving a stick shift with my left hand, all while navigating from the “wrong side” of the road was pretty exciting.

Guilty pleasure when traveling?

I have two: I like to explore areas off the beaten path in search of local street art. Besides Lynn, some of the best street art I’ve seen was on a recent trip to Lisbon and Porto. Then in the States, rather than spending a lot of money on accommodations, if I can, I prefer to spend a bit more on a rental car I want to drive, like a Mustang convertible. A giant American sedan is also pretty cool for highway cruising.

Best travel tip?

I tend to pack light, and bring wrinkle-resistant clothing that can be layered and worn in many ways. And I always pack a small, lightweight backpack for day trips.

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