Modica Way, “Graffiti Alley,” is a narrow street in Cambridge where street artists can display their talents in a space that won’t get painted over. At least not by officials, that is. The paintings are constantly evolving. New artists come around, cover a swath of bricks in fresh paint, and then layer their own masterpiece onto the walls. It’s an art form that is both competitive and transient, unlike anything else.
Location of Graffiti Alley
Just off the Central Square train station, a street sign marks the entrance to Graffiti Alley, but it’s easy to miss if you’re in a hurry. Or if you’re not in the habit of glancing down alleys, as many people in the city might not be. It’s definitely worth the moment it takes to slow down and seek out though. Trust me.
When you first peek into the alley, it smells like fresh spray paint as well as something distinctly urban that could be exhaust, crowds, road dust, or a combination of all three. Flyers and scattered newspaper pages float across the ground, getting caught underfoot as small groups of people pose for photographs. The walkway is narrow, so people end up laughing with one another, offering to hold bags or cameras for strangers as everyone tries to get the best picture. This is without a doubt, the most photogenic alley in the city.
One side has black and white paneled photographs, miraculously untouched amid the paintings. The rest of the alley is covered, from roof to sidewalk, in street art. I can’t imagine the ingenuity it takes to create an intricate piece of art while hanging twenty feet off the ground. How did they get up there? I wondered as I stared at the multi-story buildings that flank the alley. Did they have help? Was it nighttime? Where are they now?
Lights and Color in Graffiti Alley
During the day, sunlight filters down through multicolored glass panels in the alley’s ceiling. The light amplifies an already hectic color scheme to somehow create a preposterous sense of unity. It is as if all the artists worked together to create a cohesive piece. Every square foot of space vies for attention in the chaos, but it’s soothing rather than stressful. No matter where your gaze falls, it will land on art. That is a rare place indeed.
Graffiti is most often an act of rebellion. It evolves with the current times to include political messages, memorials, and portraits of famous figures. Here, despite the gorgeous glass ceiling, official green street sign, and the fact that this alley exists for the soul purpose of creating street art, people still feel that sense of otherness as they hover in the entryway.
You can feel it in the way pedestrians clump together on the sidewalk, blocking foot traffic rather than stepping into the alley. They duck just inside, snap a photo, and then retreat to the safety of the street. All the while, artists continue crafting their contribution to the wall, seemingly oblivious to their audience.
Inside the alley, passersby hover behind the artists, taking pictures with the same frantic desperation of parents attempting to photograph a child’s chalk drawing before rain blows in. They never know if the work will be visible again tomorrow, or if a new portrait, or poem, or scathing statement will have taken its place in the middle of the night.
I’d like to think that this commotion, awe, and respect all pay homage to graffiti’s original purpose: to make art while making a statement. These artists, with their permanent markers and cans of spray paint, are declaring their presence in this city. In a different way too, the pedestrians behind them say the same. “I am here. And this matters.”
Getting to Graffiti Alley in Cambridge
Modica Way “Graffiti Alley”
565-567 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02139
[pw_map address=”565-567 Massachusetts Ave Cambridge, MA 02139″]
-Elizabeth Coyle, Content Writer