Support the news

Tory Bullock Wants To Make Boston Have Uncomfortable Conversations06:36

Tory Bullock stands in front of a new apartment block on South Huntington Avenue in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Tory Bullock stands in front of a new apartment block on South Huntington Avenue in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
This article is more than 1 year old.

This profile is part of The ARTery 25, a series highlighting millennials of color making an impact in the Boston arts scene.

Even when he’s not being filmed, Tory Bullock talks like he’s on camera.

Confronted with a microphone and recording equipment, he immediately switches into host mode. "We are live on South Huntington Street over in Mission Hill," Bullock declares, taking in a row of stately brownstones sandwiched on either side by tall modern apartment buildings.

(Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
(Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

To be clear, we’re not broadcasting live, and Bullock is not a television reporter. But he has spent a lot of time in front of the camera. Right now he's standing on the block where he filmed one of his most popular Facebook videos, "Dear Boston Luxury Condos."

The video called attention to the boom in luxury apartments and the rising cost of housing in Boston. In it, Bullock stands on the same block on South Huntington, next to the same row of brownstones — but the apartment towers are cordoned of by orange barriers and encased in scaffolding, still yet to reach their finished state. "Who are these apartments for?" Bullock exclaims. "Because they're not for us."

The video racked up over 500,000 views. "It was really well received, I got to go around the city and talk to a lot of local politicians," Bullock says. "And that really plugged me into the conversation about housing and gentrification in Boston."

It is not uncommon for Bullock to attract the notice of city officials. He has a knack for bringing Boston's problems into sharp focus, and his videos aim to spark conversation. If you live in the greater Boston area and have a Facebook account, there’s a good chance Bullock has popped up on your feed. His videos sometimes begin with a catchphrase: "Boston, we gotta talk."

But Bullock hasn’t always played the role of an activist. When the Dorchester native graduated from high school, he wanted to be an actor. He found early success with a play called "ARTiculation" that fused spoken word poetry and theater.

"I'm out there talking about, you know, the revolution that needs to be happening and we need to be out in the streets, and doing all of this poetry," Bullock remembers. "But at the end of it bowing and walking offstage and going to the next tour, or whatever. And it just started to get to a point where I was like, 'Yo, like, I'm saying these words, but I'm not living these words.' "

Tory Bullock at his apartment in Mission Hill, Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Tory Bullock at his apartment in Mission Hill, Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

So Bullock quit acting. As he considered his next move, the news broke of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri. Bullock says he felt moved to speak out. So, sitting in his car, gaze trained directly into the camera, he shot a video. The speech he delivers is unscripted, pained and ambivalent. Bullock expresses dismay at Brown's death, but at the same time a reluctance to protest or get angry. This might be news to the rest of the world, he says, but for Black men like him, it's just another day. “The world has been Ferguson for me and countless other African-American men since I was born," Bullock says.

The video was viewed more than 80,000 times, and Bullock knew he'd found his medium. He started churning out videos, everything from playful rants about Boston's weather and the MBTA to more serious discussions of racism and gentrification.

Bullock thinks of his videos as something close to performance art, designed to provoke a reaction. In one, he offers his services as a "Black friend" to brands that want to make sure their marketing isn't racist. "I'm starting a new program y'all," he jokes. "It's called DiversiTory. The aim of DiversiTory is to check you when nobody else will."

But Bullock was a little upset when people actually took him up on his offer. The problem, as he saw it, was a lack of inclusion in the workplace. Hiring an outside consultant instead of a more diverse staff sidestepped the issue completely.

"It was weird because it just became this thing of like, 'Oh, wait, we can just rent a Black person! Yeah, let's do that!'" Bullock says. "And it was like, that makes me a little uncomfortable but, as an artist looking for a reaction, it was gold."

Artist Tory Bullock challenges a contestant to answer a question in "The Gentrification Game." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Artist Tory Bullock challenges a contestant to answer a question in "The Gentrification Game." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

More recently, Bullock funneled his frustration with rising rents into a piece of interactive public art called "The Gentrification Game." Visitors were invited to “play” a life-sized board game that was blatantly rigged against them. The piece encapsulates Bullock's complicated feelings about the city he calls home.

"It's a relationship — Boston is my girl," Bullock says. "But it's like, we have so much race stuff going on. We have so much housing stuff going on. It's like, if we can just tweak a few of these things, this place could be so amazing for everybody. But right now, it feels like it's just amazing for some."

Bullock isn't sure we can fix all the problems he sees. But he'll also never stop talking about them. At the very least, he'll spark conversation in your social media feed.

Tory Bullock stands on in Mission Hill. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Tory Bullock stands on in Mission Hill. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

This segment aired on March 26, 2019.


Amelia Mason Twitter Arts And Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for The ARTery, WBUR's arts and culture team. She covers everything from fine art to television to the inner workings of the Boston music scene.


+Join the discussion

Support the news