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In Cambridge’s Central Square, a very public canvas gets a clean slate

An artist who goes by the name Jive painted on a newly rebuilt wall in Graffiti Alley in Cambridge, a famous public canvas for artists. The paint was so thick on the wall that it was trapping moisture and decaying the mortar to the building so it had to be rebuilt.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — Seven hours into a 30-foot-long mural painting, Jive already knows the impermanence of his work.

Here, art is very much a fleeting experience, and Jive (his graffiti nom de plume) knows that by the end of the week, his toil could very well be scrawled over, defaced, or fully or partially covered by more graffiti. Etiquette, he agreed, among serious graffiti artists typically dictates that anyone covering over a piece like he is working on should do so with better art, not just random scrawl or a quick tag, but here, who knows what the wall will look like in coming days.

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“A lot of people, they do get sauced about it but at the same time there’s nothing you can do,” he said.

The scene is not new. For years, Richard B. “Rico” Modica Way, otherwise known as Graffiti Alley, has served as a perpetually in-flux street art mecca. What is new, however, is all the pristine space untouched by spray paint. It is a rare commodity in the alley; now there is unmarked canvas in numerous spots along an expanse of wall that is 16-feet high and 120-feet long.

Local artists have access to the panels of space thanks to a recent project that saw one of the most famous public art galleries in Greater Boston get a makeover.

In recent days, the main wall of the alley was scraped down to the bare brick. The buildup of years and years of paint was posing a structural problem for the building: It was trapping moisture, which was deteriorating the mortar holding the wall together, said Gary Strack, owner of the cocktail bar Brick and Mortar, which calls the building home.

To protect the building, Strack said crews worked to erect a wall of plywood in the alley that will allow a gap for moisture to run down the building’s exterior and allow the brick to breathe, while also maintaining the slate for street artists to continue to be creative. They shut down painting on the wall on Halloween and finished building the new wall late last week, he said.

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“It is a very important cultural space,” Strack said.

Who paid for the construction of the new wall, and how much it cost, remained open questions Monday. Strack said he did not know, and messages left with Cambridge City Hall and the Central Square Business Improvement District were not returned.

The alley is just off Massachusetts Avenue, wedged in between the building that hosts Strack’s bar and a sporting goods store in the heart of Central Square. It is thought to be among the most photographed spots in Cambridge; the various and ever-changing wall is eminently Instagram-able.

Strack said the space started to be a home for significant murals about 13 years ago. Before that, graffiti would pop up on the alley’s walls but authorities would cover it with beige paint, he said.

Last week, a sign read “Please let us finish the repair of the wall before you paint!”— a request ignored by multiple people if the scrawls on the otherwise bare wall were any indication.

But the recent construction was welcomed by local graffiti artists.

For creatives, oftentimes the biggest challenge is not having “nurturing space to evolve,” said Merk Aveli, an artist and Cambridge native.

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“With the monstrous rise in street art, I feel it’s important for free public paint space to be available, especially with the old money conservative attitude Boston carries,” he said.

Aveli thought that “a lot of traditional art forms are way less inclusive,” adding that “public art is way more powerful than the boring old gallery stuff curators tuck away.”

The alley has run the gamut from wacky and irreverent to serious and stoic. Artists have fleshed out in spray paint a diverse array of recently deceased celebrities — David Bowie, DMX, Prince, Anthony Bourdain — with portraits and other tributes. There were scribbles questioning the politics of Tom Brady at one point. Another time, a mantra implored Boston to relax underneath an unbuckled pilgrim hat made to look like the symbol of the Massachusetts Turnpike. During the summer of 2020, when protests were happening nationwide after the murder of George Floyd, the wall was home to messages and murals demanding justice for police brutality against Black people. After terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, someone painted a moving French tricolor.

On Monday, Jive, who grew up in East Boston and currently lives in Cambridge, continued to work on his mural. He had carved out his own stencils and was debating which ones to use. He had already used a stencil of an Adidas symbol and was contemplating using one that said “126B,” which is the police code for graffiti.

Nearby, his friend and fellow artist, who gave a reporter his street name of Smek, said it’s nice to have a legal space to paint, to not have to worry about running away from police, to concentrate on the work.

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“It’s always interesting,” he said of the alley. “Always different stuff. It makes me happy. Whether it be good or bad, it’s still something that’s positive.”

Jive and Smek discussed how the new wood offers a different surface to work with than the brick, which had bumpy crevices and years of paint buildup. The smoother surface of the plywood means the paint will drip more, while the brick was more absorbent, Jive said. He chipped off a 20-pound chunk of graffiti from the wall before workers stripped off all the paint.

Jive talked about being incarcerated multiple times for graffiti. Most recently, he said, he got a 2-year jail sentence in connection with a piece he did on a Winthrop beach, and he’s currently facing legal complications from some of his work on the railroad bridge underneath the Boston University Bridge.

“I’m tired of going to jail, but I don’t want to stop doing it,” said Jive, who has been doing graffiti for more than 30 years.

Here, in the alley, he doesn’t have to worry about the legal ramifications.

He examined the empty space above his creation and spotted potential. He has a 10-foot ladder at home and the work that is higher up on the wall tends to last longer since it’s harder to reach, and, therefore, harder to cover with more graffiti. He returned to his work, hissing out paint from a can onto the wall. He doesn’t drink or do drugs anymore; the art helps him in his recovery, he said, comparing it to both an addiction and a medication.

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“I have to get my itch,” he said.

Due to a reporter’s error, a previous version of this story incorrectly reported Jive’s recent time behind bars. He spent two years in jail, not prison.




Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.