BEVERLY — A graffiti mural that began as a response to the growing problem of obscene messages scrawled upon a prominent wall has become a local institution with a national and even international following.
In the process, this wall at the Clemenzi Industrial Park has also become one of just a few spaces in the region where graffiti is officially sanctioned, which may help protect nearby walls from unwanted images and messages.
John Clemenzi, who manages the property that his family has owned for four decades, said that when he began allowing artists to paint on the building’s rear wall, Beverly was in the midst of “a horrible graffiti problem.” But in recent years, he said, “I rarely if at all see any graffiti elsewhere in the city.”
“If. . . there’s very little of it, it’s because they have a place to go and do it legally instead of tagging somebody else’s private property and ending up in jail if they get caught,” Clemenzi, 60, said in a telephone interview Sunday.
The change began about a dozen years ago, when two Montserrat College of Art students approached Clemenzi with a proposal to decorate the wall, which faces the tracks for the Newburyport/Rockport commuter rail line.
Clemenzi had grown frustrated with the frequent repainting necessary to cover up profane and often sexist messages that were routinely painted on the wall, so he agreed to let the young artists decorate a small section, 40 feet of what he estimates is a total length of about 800 feet.
He set three ground rules: Clean up after yourselves, no offensive messages, and don’t paint on the building’s brick faces. The students agreed to follow those rules and to help police the area, and over time, the sanctioned graffiti grew to cover the wall.
The wall has become well known among graffiti artists, Clemenzi said, drawing painters from New York, Florida, California — even France. Some of the work has even impressed Clemenzi, who admits he was not immediately a fan of graffiti art.
“I’d be struggling if you gave me oil and canvas and brushes and lessons, and these guys do this with a half a dozen spray cans,” he said.
Beverly police declined to comment on the wall Sunday afternoon.
The wall is a welcome alternative to the dangers of illegal tagging, according to one North Shore graffiti artist who, as dusk fell Sunday, had just finished his latest addition to the constantly evolving mural.
“If there were more outlets for people to come and do things, there’d be less people out there destroying other people’s stuff,” said the artist, 23, who signs his work “Seam” and asked that his real name be withheld because his past tagging has led to run-ins with the law.
“I got in a lot of trouble when I was younger doing graffiti,” he said, “so now I just do it where it’s legal.”
Under Massachusetts law, anyone convicted of “maliciously or wantonly” defacing property can spend up to three years in prison and face the loss of his or her driver’s license for a year, as well as a fine of either $1,500 or three times the value of the defaced property, whichever is greater. The offender is also required to pay for cleaning the property.
Fines are doubled and 500 hours of community service added for defacing monuments, war or veterans’ memorials, and gravestones.
Seam, the graffiti artist, said New Hampshire has walls where graffiti is allowed, but the only other place in the Boston area that he knows of is the alley designated Richard B. “Rico” Modica Way in Cambridge’s Central Square.
Sunday afternoon, Nathan Furst paused in the alley, pulled out his phone, and turned in a slow semicircle to capture a panoramic photo of the brightly colored faces, symbols, and often inscrutable writing.
Furst said posting photos of the wall on Facebook has become a weekly ritual since he began Sunday classes at nearby ImprovBoston.
“I love it, so I decided to share what I love with the world,” said Furst, 17, of North Reading.
His father, Andy Furst, 50, also took a quick photo. The elder Furst said he had been visiting the Cambridge wall for about 30 years, since he was a young man in a rock band that played at the nearby Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub and T.T. the Bear’s Place.
“It’s a good way for people to express themselves and sort of up the communication beyond the bland status quo,” he said. “Everybody gets a voice.”
Globe correspondent Alyssa Creamer contributed to this report. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.