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Murals arrive with a message for Boston: It’s time to act on ocean conservation

Lauren YS stood in front of their work-in-progress Wednesday on Chelsea Street. The Sea Walls Boston program brings a wave of new public murals, including one by celebrity artist Shepard Fairey.
Lauren YS stood in front of their work-in-progress Wednesday on Chelsea Street. The Sea Walls Boston program brings a wave of new public murals, including one by celebrity artist Shepard Fairey.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Last weekend, on a whale watch in Boston Harbor, Lauren YS caught sight of deflated birthday balloons floating in the water. The muralist was horrified.

“Sea life eats that,” they said. “And then they starve to death or suffocate.”

YS is in town from Los Angeles to participate in Sea Walls Boston 2021, an ambitious public art program featuring more than a dozen artists painting murals about ocean conservation in one week. The event, presented by HarborArts in collaboration with the New England Aquarium, is part of PangeaSeed Foundation’s Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans initiative, which has brought nearly 450 murals to communities in 17 countries since 2014.

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Sea Walls Boston was originally planned for last year. The pandemic put a crimp in it, but Harbor Arts ran a pilot program in the East Boston Shipyard. Seven murals are already up there; artist Dragon76 painted one earlier this month in the Fenway, and 14 more are going up this week, mostly in East Boston.

Shepard Fairey, best known for his 2008 “Hope” poster depicting presidential candidate Barack Obama, is painting an endangered right whale on the façade of the Aquarium’s Simons Theatre.

Shepard Fairey, second from left, started painting at New England Aquarium on Thursday.
Shepard Fairey, second from left, started painting at New England Aquarium on Thursday. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“A lot of people don’t want to be confronted, really, by a problem like this. They don’t have the bandwidth,” Fairey said over the phone last week from Los Angeles. “Art finds ways in emotionally that will help them process it intellectually.”

Sea Walls aims to appeal to the eye to motivate people to learn about our troubled oceans.

“How do you translate facts and data in a way that resonates with people?” said Tre’ Packard, founder and executive director of PangeaSeed Foundation, who flew in from Hawaii for the event. He was at the shipyard for an artists’ orientation last weekend.

“Here, people take selfies with the mural,” he said.

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Felipe Ortiz worked on the details of his mural on Gove Street.
Felipe Ortiz worked on the details of his mural on Gove Street.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

While some have traveled far to get here, Sea Walls Boston features several local artists and focuses on issues that affect Boston. Project director Matthew Pollock, executive director of HarborArts, lives on a boat in East Boston.

“Sea level rise is not an issue of the future in East Boston,” he said. “We’ve seen water up over the piers.”

He hopes the murals will educate his neighbors.

“Sea Walls inspires communities like ours to be ocean stewards and take ownership and pride for the artworks,” Pollock said. “It’s a community-building experience.” Indeed, Harbor Arts plans programming around the murals for local schools in the fall.

Plus, this week’s events include walking tours, an urban wildlife cleanup, and a screening at the Aquarium of “Obey Giant,” a documentary about Fairey.

In East Boston, where most of the murals are going up, YS is painting a mural about plastic pollution — so the sight of birthday trash in the harbor was particularly dispiriting. Before flying to Boston, they’d visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in Monterey, Calif., and seen an exhibit of sea life living amid trash.

YS called their style “fantastical surrealism,” and described the image for this mural as “a cabinet of curiosities.” Within it, they are painting sea creatures trapped in man-made discards.

“It catches your eye, and then you look closer and [think], ‘Oh, there is something dark going on,’” said the artist.

Boston artist Sophy Tuttle is painting a mural about sharks. “Seven people die from shark interactions around the world in a year,” Tuttle said. “Seven to 10 million sharks die from human interactions.”

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Sophy Tuttle took a break from painting her mural on Border Street.
Sophy Tuttle took a break from painting her mural on Border Street.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Some shark fatalities are due to fishing net entanglements, she said, but many are the result of shark finning. Fishermen catch sharks, amputate their fins — a culinary delicacy in parts of Asia — and dump the fish back in the ocean, where they die.

Tuttle’s style combines realism, geometric patterns, and hard data. She participated in the Sea Walls pilot program last year, painting a mural about sea level rise and salt marsh sparrows. She’s impressed with the way the program is run.

“This activist-oriented festival is unique,” Tuttle said. “I get a wall. They give you a theme, and you get to do whatever you want. It’s difficult, in Boston, to find a wall and to not be dictated to.”

Fairey’s mural depicts a stylized right whale.

“Emanating from the whale’s back is a ‘V,’ out of what would be its blowhole, and a mandala with the earth in the center,” said the artist, who has been making art about environmental destruction for more than 20 years. He praised Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans as a template for art activism, and hopes to see more programs that help artists, communities, and the earth. The message is too important.

“The health of the planet depends on the health of the oceans,” he said.

SEA WALLS BOSTON 2021

Through July 25 at the New England Aquarium, 1 Central Wharf, and sites throughout East Boston. seawalls.org/activation/boston-usa-21/

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Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.