By Seth Daniel
It could be taken as vandalism or offensive by some, but graffiti in the South End was a way for young people in the 1990s to stay safe from violence and the lures of the streets – when things were much different in the South End and all of Boston.
While many places were off limits, and graffiti wasn’t welcome or tolerated in most corners of the City, Peters Park was neutral ground. It was there that young people found peace in the 1990s when street crime was much higher and graffiti art flourished on what is now known as the Peters Park graffiti wall.
“This was a neutral area in the 1990s,” said Robert Gibbs, who grew up in the Lenox Development, painted on the Peters Park wall, and now is the well-regarded director of Artists for Humanity. “Back then you didn’t step foot in another neighborhood without getting into some beef. This was a neutral spot and it was in the center of the city and people would come here to paint. It was sacred and it was considered the wall of fame for our city…The messages put on it – when we got to it – were extremely important for the neighborhood. You couldn’t just come up and paint here. You had to prove yourself.”
The same was true for Victor Quinonez, who turned his interest in graffiti into a life’s work. Quinones, known as Marka27, now works as a full-time designer for Converse in downtown Boston. But his artistic pursuits began in the South End on the graffiti wall.
“The skills are transferrable,” he said. “You start on the wall and you hone your skills and you move to computers and then to designing. It’s all the same thing.”
Both Gibbs and Quinonez are part of the African Latino Alliance (ALA) Collective and were the last featured artists on the wall, having painted parts of the ‘Soul Revival’ graffiti mural in 2007. Now, they are getting ready to work with others in the neighborhood to choose a new artist who will see the value of the history, and help make new history with local young people once again.
But at the same time, they don’t want their own rich history to be lost, as it was a critical point in their lives whereby they kept safe and kept things in order – and learned positive skills from older people in the neighborhood. Though many in Boston do not know, graffiti artists here are well regarded and quite well known in other parts of the country – mostly built upon a foundation that started in the South End decades ago.
To that end, the history is now being chronicled in a documentary video that has started interviewing many members of ALA and those from City Lights on Washington Street that were instrumental in getting the wall started in 1986. Last Saturday, ALA members and City Lights founder Duggan Hill did several interviews with documentarians in front of the wall and at City Lights.
Hill said the wall began when he did a dance performance at City Hall for then Mayor Ray Flynn and Cardinal Bernard Law. The show, he said, was probably a little too racy for the Cardinal, but the talent caught the eye of Flynn – who showed up one day at Peters Park.
“He was very interested and he came down to the wall and wanted to know what we were doing,” said Hill. “I told him if the kids had this wall as their own, they wouldn’t have to paint on buildings. He did it, declared it their wall, and the buildings stayed clean. That was the deal.”
Wiso Gee, who grew up in Villa Victoria, said he grew up painting on the wall as a way to step away from the daily drama of the neighborhood – the shootings by rival housing developments that seemed to dominate the daily conversation in 1990s Boston. For him, graffiti on the Peters Park wall was a way to step away, and learn something bigger from respected and credible artists in the neighborhood.
“It means a lot to me,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of ways to look at it. It was a place where I was able to mature and begin to deal with all of the things you dealt with in the inner city. I could step away from the daily talk about what was going on in the neighborhood and be with people who were painting seriously and having fun and just getting away from what happened in the neighborhood that day.
“I remember when Tremont Street was all Spanish markets and Spanish stores,” he recalled. “You had a different population come in and they came with their likes and dislikes. Unfortunately, for them to come in the old had to go…I’m older and wiser now and I understand change, but those ideas were things I could express and did express (on the wall)…ALA had lots of different people from lots of neighborhoods come together. I’m from the Villa and the wall is in Castle Square territory. Under any other circumstance, I would have had trouble if I was up here. That never happened though.”
Gibbs recalled that he would often pass the wall from Lenox on his way to a youth program on Thayer Street. He would watch and learn by observation from the graffiti artists who managed the wall – those who came before him and taught him by example.
At that time, graffiti wasn’t popular or showcased in the way it is now, so with the encouragement of his middle school principal, he began painting. Soon, he wasn’t just looking at the wall, but putting things on the wall.
“I did go from talking about the wall to having stuff on the wall,” he said. “That’s when it got really serious for me…This was the way we had to talk to each other and communicate with each other. This was before the Internet or cell phones. We didn’t have rallies or conferences. This wall was our statement and it was a way to see what was going on in the minds of young people in a tasteful way…The City really wasn’t open to having murals back then. This was the only place.”
Quinonez and other members estimated there are dozens of members of the ALA Collective now working in the arts or who formerly did so. Most, he said, got their start working or watching people work on the Peters Park wall.
“The wall is different,” said Gibbs. “The old wall was taller and longer, and it’s gone. This is a replacement for us, but it isn’t for young people. This is new to them. This can now be their history.”