New Documentary Shines Light on City's Legal Graffiti Scene

New Documentary Shines Light on City's Legal Graffiti Scene

"We need at least one legal wall in every neighborhood. We just want to create and express ourselves."

On Tuesday, November 12, the Cambridge Public Library hosted a community screening of "Above the Free Walls," the new documentary from local filmmaker Weiying Olivia Huang. Huang received funding from the Cambridge Arts Council earlier this year to help produce the feature-length documentary, which is about the legal graffiti wall in Central Square's Modica Way alleyway and the community of graffiti artists that spray there.

Huang started off the night by thanking both the Cambridge Arts Council and the Mass Cultural Council for supporting the project and sponsoring the event. She also asked audience members to provide feedback and comments after the early test screening, since the film is still in the process of being edited.

Afterwards, State Senator Patricia D. Jehlen took to the podium to provide a few opening remarks. Jehlen credited Huang's personal background as a painter as the reason why she was uniquely suited to capture the story of Cambridge's legal graffiti wall.

The documentary began with a series of shots of the ever-changing graffiti murals on either side of the Richard B. “Rico” Modica Way. Located between 567 and 565 Mass Ave, the alleyway first opened up its walls to the local graffiti community in 2006.

Huang said she started work on the project in April 2018, when she began regularly visiting the alley and building up a network of local graffiti artists to interview for the film.

"For me, spraying is just getting out of the real world for a second," says Jeremy Harrison, a Boston native who goes by the street name Sobek - when he isn't working his day job as a cook in Roxbury. "I don't really get a lot of time to focus on art," he says in the film.

Throughout the documentary, many graffiti artists praise Cambridge for its decision to provide the local community with a legal wall. As one of only two legal graffiti walls in all of Massachusetts, Modica Way is able to attract area artists like Harrison, who visits multiple times each week to spray in peace.

Still, Harrison laments that there aren't any legal walls in Boston proper, since there are many younger street artists in his neighborhood who might not be able or willing to make the trek up to Central Square. Later on in the film, Huang checks back in with Harrison as he prepares for his gallery opening at the Art for Change Afro-Carribean gallery in Dorchester.

Another artist featured in the film is Harriet Wood, a professional sprayer from Bristol, England. Spraying under the name of Hazard, Wood travels around the world to spray walls (for fun as well as for commission) and to meet other artists. Most of her pieces tend to depict women from various cultures.

"Having a female face in the public reminds people that we're a force to be reckoned with," says Wood in the film.

The documentary paints the graffiti community in a largely positive light, but not all voices in the film are in favor of street art. One segment focused on an older man in the alley who started heckling the artists mid-spray.

"This isn't art! This is not original, it's stolen from online... These people are not artists, they just copy," the man shouts to Wood and Harrison.

The man's bold accusations elicited laughter, from both the artists in the film as well as from many members of the screening's audience.

Many other local and visiting artists were interviewed throughout the documentary, which ran for a little over an hour in this early-stage cut. Afterwards, Huang opened the floor up to audience feedback.

"We need at least one [legal wall] in every neighborhood," said one audience member who thanked Huang for creating the documentary. "We just want to create and express ourselves."

Another graffiti artist in the lecture hall made a public plea for a dumpster to be added to the alleyway.

"Sometimes graffiti artists get a bad rap. They don't give us no dumpster in the area," said the man. He added that keeping the alleyway clean would help keep away drug addicts and other troublemakers.

One piece of especially constructive feedback came from an audience member who didn't seem to be a graffiti artist himself. He suggested that Huang include more historical details about Modica Way and how it came to be designated as a legal wall. He also suggested that Huang place Harrison's art gallery segment earlier in the documentary to improve pacing and that she reach out to Cambridge musicians to source a soundtrack of local hip hop and rap tracks for the film.

After about twenty minutes of community feedback, Huang once again thanked the audience for attending and ended the night by briefly alluding to the documentary's future steps.

"Thank you for all the info and feedback," she said. "It'll really help me work on the next stage of the editing process."

An early trailer for "Above the Free Walls" is available to watch on YouTube.