The City as my Canvas

Text by Adam McCarthy
Photos by Darren Samuels


I wanted to see what I could learn about Boston by what was graffitied on its walls, so I invited a photographer along and we searched the streets. The endless tags and throw-ups weren’t exactly what I was looking for, rather the personal, short phrases you come across at the most random of places. 

Walking around early one morning in Chinatown with Darren, the photographer, we saw a stencil on the plywood walling of a construction site: ‘Not Art’ it read. 


The stencil was painted inconspicuously at the bottom of the wall, surrounded by other tags and throw-ups. It was written in Octin, the stencil font typically used by police, prisons, sports teams, etc. We were confused. Was some authority trying to tell us that this wasn’t a place to make art, a.k.a graffiti? Or rather, some citizen claiming that this piece of plywood, quite simply, was not art?

 I would have been less sure if I hadn’t seen this same stencil riddled throughout Boston, questioning our concept of art in unsuspecting corners. Whether the answer is that everything is art, or that art is in the eye of the beholder, I can’t say for sure; the questioning itself is perhaps the desired effect. 

On a separate day, I sat in a tree submerged in the sun while Darren snapped photos of a spray-painted wall at Arnold Arboretum in Forest Hills. He was capturing an elaborate one-word phrase: ‘Now’. Six feet tall and ten feet wide it was done in white geometric bubble letters outlined by red and yellow over a black background. It was accessorized by tufts of smoke and pockets of air and enveloped by two outward arrows on each side of the word.  


The arrows made the ‘now’ ever-roving, and the tufts of smoke made it evanescent, while the bubbles suggested life- a small pocket of time that exists before a pop. I thought about the many names surrounding the throw-up, written in the same blue as the bubbles, and the memories they had created when they made the piece.  Amidst all the other pieces promoting a singular name or identity, this phrase stood out to me the most. 

A lot of graffiti is simply vandalism for the sake of the rush and sense of power it gives in stamping a name or tag over a property, claiming authority and rebellion, but this is selfish and unthinking. Pithy, political, or poetic statements are a means to an end, serving a greater purpose than to simply vandalize. This graffiti is a vehicle to a different world, a powerful medium seeking change through its ability to make people think. The honesty of these statements opposes the mindless omnipresence of consumerist advertising and media. I was glad to find that Boston was an art conscious, philosophically minded city. 


“Fuck the Free World”- Darren snaps a pic of the phrase in a back alley of Allston. Boston began the conversation. Will we respond?