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The graffiti hunter
One man’s obsessive quest to document Boston’s ever-vanishing urban art
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Greggebee walks nonchalantly as we follow the rusted-metal tracks of the Fitchburg commuter-rail line last Saturday morning in Somerville. He usually sets out three hours earlier, before the suburban shuttle starts. But today, neither one of us bothered to dig up an MBTA schedule. Still, he doesn’t worry about the impending trains.

"That makes this trip even gnarlier," he says with a grin. "If one comes, just move as far away as we can."

We pass by busted toys and unruly weeds. Branches, umbrella skeletons, and broken-glass shards snap underfoot. Discarded spray cans, Rust-Oleum, and Painter’s Touch lay in piles beside the tracks. A good sign.

We’re only 50 yards into the journey when we see the first face worth documenting: a crude circular visage spray-painted beneath a loading dock. Ten paces further, there’s another emerging from an elaborate graffiti frieze: a three-legged, masked creature with a dolphin-like head, an angry expression, and a mutant middle finger that’s flipping off the world. Greggebee (a Roxbury resident who goes only by his nickname) digs his digital camera out of his bag and starts taking photos.

A few yards down he spots another: a beady-eyed cranium spurting gray matter and bearing the tag ice cold gang. He pushes aside the weeds obscuring it to snap more pictures. "This one’s pretty dope."

This is what Greggebee does: he collects graffiti — specifically street portraits — through the lens of a camera.

Greggebee has spent the past four and a half years searching for faces throughout the urban landscape. He’s woken up on countless Saturday mornings and headed to where he knows, based on experience, that people go to paint. His friends tell him about faces they see on the street, and he scribbles the locations in a little black book and hustles to get to them before they disappear. Bricks, metal doors, alleys, poles, silver transformer boxes, windows, rocks, trees, phone booths — he’s found ephemeral faces on every imaginable surface.

Due to their almost anarchic isolation, train tracks are a natural draw for graf writers. But Greggebee has also dangled over the Charles River in the icy months to shoot faces on the sides of bridges. In a sense, the search for the image is as thrilling as the discovery. "It’s a total adrenaline rush when I have to jump a fence or climb a sketchy rooftop — or do whatever it takes to retrace the artists’ steps. It gets the heart pumping a little as you’re tracking their trail."

Since January 2001, Greggebee has accumulated thousands of these portraits. Fabricated with sundry materials — stencils, paintbrushes, adhesives, pencils, wheat paste, spray paint, wood, bolted signage — the faces are sometimes described as "street art" rather than graffiti. ("Graffiti" traditionally refers to stylized tag names written in spray paint; see "Writing on the Wall," News and Features, July 16, 2004.) He has sleepy-eyed purple goblins, slash-mouthed stick figures with question-mark ears, bucktoothed yokels with liver-spotted scalps, skeletons on cell phones, dead karate legends, dead presidents, flaming skulls, comic-book villains, exotic beauties plumed with flowers. He has political faces (Mumia Abu-Jamal, Al Gore, George W. Bush), tough-guy faces (Bruce Lee, Taxi Driver–era Robert De Niro, the ubiquitous Andre the Giant), musical faces (John Coltrane, Sid Vicious), cult faces (Don Knotts). He even has a photo of a face done by Neck Face, one of the hottest street scrawlers going in the country. "These walls are outdoor galleries," says Greggebee.

Big American cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago have long, rich, well-documented histories of graffiti culture. Boston does not. Search the Wooster Collective, a New York–based Web site that bills itself as a "celebration of street art," for the word "Boston" and it turns up 64 results; a search for "San Francisco" unearths 11,200, while "Chicago" turns up 11,100. Miles of graffiti, like the pieces rendered on the walls along the Fitchburg line, are rare in this town, which is why you have to be something of a hunter — and be willing to embark on fence-hopping missions — to find it.

"I’m just doing the job that somebody’s gotta do," Greggebee says. "Otherwise, these paintings will go away and no one will ever even know that they existed. And that would be a whole part of our history that’d be missing."


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Issue Date: August 12 - 18, 2005
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