Street art isn’t a very portable medium, so if there’s a particular work or artist you want to see, you typically have to travel to it rather than waiting for it to come to you. Since the mysterious street artist known as Banksy is a Brit, I’d always assumed I’d never see one of his clever, politically pointed works in person, only online. That’s why last week, on my way to a Thursday night talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, I made a point to walk my usual beat through Central Square, knowing that others had spotted some of Banksy’s handiwork on a brick wall on Essex Street.

I’ve been a fan of stenciled street art since spotting the little listener a street artist named chalkoner left on the stairway entrance to a record store in downtown Keene several years ago. Stenciled street art is a more controlled, composed medium than freehand pieces, with the artist sketching a design and then creating poster board stencils before using spray-paint to apply the various colors and shapes. A stencil artist can apply a particular creation in multiple locations, as Shepard Fairey did with his infamous Obey/Andre the Giant theme, but Banksy is known for site-specific creations that typically employ a combination of stenciled images and freehand slogans.

Anonymous passerby

The particular wall on Essex Street that Banksy chose for his tongue-in-cheek critique on the coddled, contained nature of today’s society is right around the corner from the graffiti-wall on Modica Way I’ve photographed so often, and it’s the same wall where I’d spotted Shepard Fairey’s Barack Obama mingling with Goldenstash in November, 2008…at least until that iconic image was defaced. (Click here for Steve’s earlier image of that Obama-art.) In other words, this is a wall I know, having watched various bits of graffiti appear, disappear, and be replaced over the years. (Further down Essex Street, for instance, there once was an endearing stenciled image of two camera- and binocular-toting sightseers which has since been cleaned up.)

Street art appreciation

It was a bit weird to see this otherwise bland brick wall on an otherwise nondescript Cambridge side street suddenly become a sightseeing destination because the usual graffiti had been replaced by Street Art By Somebody Famous. As I approached Essex Street on Thursday evening, there was a throng of pedestrians and cyclists stopped to snap photos with cell phones, and several passing cars slowed down to look, confused, in the direction everyone else was looking, trying to figure out what exactly was so special about this brick wall compared to any other.

After snapping my own handful of pictures, I took a stroll over to Modica Way to see what was new there, then I circled back to Essex Street, where a young couple was now standing in front of the wall, talking and pointing. Had I not known they were there to admire the famous Banksy, I would have thought I’d stumbled upon the site of some obscure religious apparition, the faces of Jesus and Mary on a blank wall.

Instead, it’s just what you get when you combine some stenciled spray-paint, chalk, and more than an ounce of audacious creativity.


Click here for the half-dozen images I shot of the Essex Street Banksy in Cambridge’s Central Square.

While in Boston, Banksy also left some social commentary on a wall in Chinatown. The buzz online is that Banksy is trying to create publicity for his new movie, which sounds interesting in its own right.

One of the best things about street art, of course, is that you never know what random goodness any brick wall will offer.

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