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Graffiti Artists Leave Mammoth Mark On Buttoned-Up Boston

BOSTON — Over the past week a very public act of graffiti has been taking place in Boston’s Financial District. But it’s not illegal.

Os Gemeos, a pair of internationally known Brazilian street artists, has permission to paint a huge mural on the side of a ventilation building. It’s part of their first solo museum show in the United States, which opens Wednesday at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

A Cartoonish Dude By The Financial District

There’s a new resident in Dewey Square Park, and he doesn’t exactly fit in with the men and women wearing dark suits who pass him by. He’s a colorful, defiant character, spray-painted on a 70-by-70-foot wall, looking like a Gulliver-sized street kid in a red hood.

“I’ve seen people do triple takes,” said ICA curator Pedro Alonzo. “They walk by and they’re like, ‘What!?’ And they keep looking back!”

That’s exactly the reaction Alonzo wants this mammoth mural to inspire. He brought Os Gemeos, the identical twin brother artists, to Boston for the ICA exhibition. The public mural is part of the show. Alonzo says vibrant, cartoonish dudes are Os Gemeos’ signature.

“They’re some of the most renowned artists in the world, really, as far as big, public outdoor murals,” Alonzo said. “They started painting on the streets in Sao Paolo, and they started to develop these characters over time. Os Gemeos strayed away from the tradition of graffiti-writing and embraced figuration. But their most famous are really these yellow figures with these red hoods.”

Boston’s Complex History With Street Art

The hooded figures are an edgy choice for a place like Boston. The city has had a complex and controversial history with graffiti and street art. Shepard Fairey, the poster artist who created the “Hope” image for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, was arrested here in 2009 on the opening night of his show at the ICA. The Os Gemeos mural embodies graffiti, hip hop and youth culture, so in many ways it’s pretty un-Boston.

“We love that, the ‘un-Boston.’ We love to be un-Boston,” said Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo (they basically speak as one), of Os Gemeos, which means “the twins” in Portuguese. The 38-year-old identical twins say this about Boston:

“Didn’t see many murals here in the city. I don’t know why, but we need art. We need colors in the city. Not that Boston is boring, but I love Boston, it’s a nice city, but it needs more art in the streets.”

The twins see every wall as a potential canvas. When they work — high up on lifts surrounded by empty spray paint cans — they close themselves off.

“[Boston's] a nice city, but it needs more art in the streets.”
– Os Gemeos

“We are really inside of the painting. But when we go down to take a cafe we try to be more open and to listen to people.”

And what are they hearing from Bostonians?

“Everybody says the same thing, like, ‘Wow we miss something like that here. Make our life more happy.’ And I hope that this is opening new doors for local artists or other artists to make more pieces like this size here in the city.”

The artists want public art to snap people out of their routines, make them look up even for a moment, to see the beauty and chaos of urban life. “Art for the people,” they call it. But it wasn’t easy to pull off.

“Looking for walls is sort of like being a matchmaker,” the ICA’s Alonzo said. “Because you have to find someone who’s willing to have their walls painted, and then you have to go to the artist and make sure they like the wall. And that is a complicated process.”

Ultimately the Greenway Conservancy, the Boston Arts Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation got behind the project. MassDOT owns the Big Dig ventilation building that’s now covered in spray paint.

But the mural is a temporary piece, slated to stay up for 18 months. Artists Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo wonder if Boston might decide to keep their hooded character.

“I hope he can stay there,” the artists said. Because Os Gemeos says he’s a nice guy, with a lot of positive energy.

The Os Gemeos solo exhibition runs through November at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. The artists made a smaller painting on the outside of the Revere Hotel.

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