For some of us, the walls are always talking if you are willing to listen with your eyes.
Historically, graffiti has been defined by some as illegal drawings on public spaces like walls, buses, and trains. Graffiti, at its best, is more than phenomenal letter art. It’s also a romance, a battle cry, and sometimes, a flex of the ego that says: “Look at me. I matter.”'
When I went to Minneapolis in June for George Floyd’s memorial service, I visited 38th and Chicago, now known as George Floyd Square. During COVID, we cannot cling to one another and mourn. So as the country cracked open its heart and hollered, we didn’t just protest in the streets. We turned to graffiti, to signs, to flowers, and creative ways to immortalize a man who we didn’t know yet we saw ourselves in him.
This week, almost six months later, Minneapolis is grappling with how to dismantle the memorial and reopen the intersection.
When I see graffiti and art in the streets, I do not see harm done to property. I wonder what incited people to craft language this way. I listen. A fat cap and a can of Montana paint are excellent tools of communication if one knows how to wield them.
In Worcester, Che Anderson speaks the language of establishment and the streets. As deputy cultural development officer and founding director of the POW! WOW! Worcester mural festival, Anderson understands cans of spray paint are a revolution of representation. He, along with colleagues Erin Williams, Gloria Hall, and Tina Zlody, are among the many who’ve helped transform Worcester into a city of art.
Anderson focuses on ways to commission murals and use art as a civic tool. He understands graffiti as the foundation from which the best murals and street art are born.
The city has over 140 works of public art, mostly murals. Fifty of them cover schools. The paintings are as diverse as the imagination allows: Girls playing violins, Frida Kahlo in a roller set, an homage to legendary cycling champ Major Taylor.
“Public art is the most accessible art, with or without a pandemic," said Anderson, 31. “Having work people can get to without paying a price is important, but also it’s work that can be done in real time. Power lies in the immediacy of being able to offer social commentary now.”
Jean-Michel Basquiat knew the beautiful resistance of talking through walls. Decades before we’d see his art on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, he was a graffiti writer, an artist the art world didn’t understand. His work, like that of Roxbury’s own Rob “Problak,” Gibbs, sent a message to the people. Whereas Problak sends nuanced love letters to the little Black children of Boston, Basquiat used a childlike aesthetic combined with politics to upend the same old — or SAMO — establishment.
There is graffiti we see as a whole picture, the work we see as messages, and there’s also the power of names.
Graffiti glorifies names — our names as well as the names of our murdered and missing, their faces immortalized on T-shirts and the walls of the hood, reminding us to fight for the living the way we remember our dead.
“You see your name in a different light with graffiti,” said SOEMS, a graffiti writer from Roxbury and Dorchester. “It’s in your face expression unlike any other. You’re literally learning a language, a whole new alphabet.”
For a lot of us, learning to tag your name is a rite of passage just as normal as learning to spell it. These are often the names that teachers don’t care to pronounce. These are the names that job recruiters discriminate against. These are also the names we give ourselves and one another that allow us secret lives and languages only we know. Even if your tag never makes it beyond a Sharpie and notebook paper, those bubble letters are yours.
As a kid who grew up in the Amsterdam Houses, a New York City housing project, graffiti was scrawled all over the park where Anderson played. Graffiti, one of the original elements of hip-hop, was in fashion, video games, the music videos, on the trains. It was as natural as breathing.
To him, graffiti can be a beautiful disobedience. But it’s also an art form that when not commissioned, could translate to a felony. Anderson helps create a bridge for legal space.
“What brings me joy is that we get to put artwork in public spaces to represent community,” said Anderson, 31. “When young people see this work, they want to know how it got here. That’s an entryway to civic engagement.”
Anderson is able to work with artists who don’t always trust officials, SOEMS believes, because he respects the culture of graffiti.
“The spray can holds so much weight and integrity,” said SOEMS. “Graffiti is an art form. There are people who have vandalized things. There are people who take a can and put a swastika on the wall. That’s not graffiti. That’s terrorism.”
Seeing the walls come alive makes a difference. Jennessa Burks, a mixed-media artist, spent most of her life in Worcester. The 31-year-old fourth-grade teacher, who worked in Worcester Public Schools until taking a job in Cambridge last year, said the murals are filling a void. When artists come to paint walls, they spend time with the kids. They answer questions. Sometimes they do workshops.
“I am feeling very proud of the city right now for its beautiful, powerful art and diversity of the art,” said Burks. “Not only is the art reflective of you and your friends, it’s in the places people typically wouldn’t visit. It truly represents all faces of the community.”
For her, as an artist, being able to paint allows you to be heard in a system that sometimes refuses to listen. Over the summer, she was one of the many artists to collaborate on Worcester’s Black Lives Matter street mural.
"As a Black woman, I don’t think that there are a lot of other ways I feel my voice is welcome, heard, appreciated,” said Burks. “I think there is a beauty in being able to express yourself in ways that have less rules and allow you to really speak from your heart.”
In her book, “All About Love,” bell hooks recalls graffiti on construction walls near Yale that became her morning medication. It read, “The search for love continues in the face of great odds.”
That, to me, is graffiti. The spray can holds the color of love, a desire to be seen, a demand for justice, and a secret dap for the folk who speak the neighborhood’s native tongue.
Coming next: Protest is a beautiful resistance. Sign up to be notified of the next episode. Find the A Beautiful Resistance Playlist, Episode 2, curated by Dart Adams, below, and also on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube Music. See more at Globe.com/ABeautifulResistance.