LOCAL COLOR From early taggers like Popeye to punk-show regulars like Sp.One (above), Boston's graffiti artists have always embraced their integrity and individuality.
Boston has a special place in graffiti history — and not just because one of our early marquee vandals, Popeye, was Jordan Knight of the New Kids on the Block.
While absolutely influenced by New York, the exalted bombers of Bay State renown have always been a breed unto themselves and products of the landscape here. Thirty years ago, Boston's first-generation writers took to trains and walls to fight out the latent race war still brewing from the school busing crisis. Years later, their protégés were skateboarders, hardcore kids, and anarcho-punks — in contrast to taggers in other spots who were shaking paint cans to boom-bap bass lines.
Boston's storied years of beautiful decay are colorfully highlighted in the new street-art masterpiece, The History of American Graffiti. It's no wonder; co-author Caleb Neelon is a Boston-born, Cambridge-based globetrotter who has splashed walls across the world as Sonik. In the process of curating two of the most exhaustive accounts of concrete décor ever produced — the epic international guerilla-art survey Street World, and now American Graffiti — he's amassed a wealth of insight on the region he calls home.
In the first of two Boston chapters, American Graffiti paints the Bean as a hotbed of racial tension and a fertile breeding ground for renegade activity. Coming from mostly black and Latino pockets like Jamaica Plain and Mattapan, the first prolific graf kids became active in the early 1980s to overwrite hate speech that was scrawled on the Red Line trains that ran through Dorchester and Southie. By the middle of the decade, icons like Click and Maze were as visible as all the racial epithets that had covered cars and platforms since the 1970s.
While Red Line bombing in the name of social justice lit the fuse, Boston became especially colorful around the elevated Orange Line, which ran on Washington Street from downtown to Forest Hills, slicing through diverse and blighted neighborhoods like Mission Hill, where a score of early writers hung their aerosol caps. But when the Orange Line trestles were dismantled in the late 1980s, years of hard work and props vanished with them.
"You can date the end of the old school in Boston to April 4, 1987," says Neelon. "After the elevated train came down, none of the rooftop pieces were visible anymore. That history was hidden to so many people for so many years — it's why the old school of Boston never came off in any books."
Luckily there were underground magazines like Skills, which Queens writer Sp.One started — with a friend who worked the late-night shift at Copy Cop — after moving to Boston in the early 1990s. Along with Wombat, Ryze, and a score of punk-show regulars from Boston and the budding scene in Lynn, Sp.One helped rejuvenate a local culture that had largely fallen off.
"When I look back, there were definitely things that were different about what was happening around here," Sp.One tells the Phoenix. "In other places, a lot of people were more into the hip-hop scene. Here, most of us were listening to hardcore and going to shows at the Rat."