’Header uses ‘epic street art’ to strengthen communities

Sitting at the back of a cavernous former machine shop in downtown Lynn, Al Wilson talks about two of his favorite things — art and soccer — and how they both build community.
“For me, soccer is a great connector,” he says. “It’s the world sport. Art is another connector, by creating shared stories.”

Wilson, who lives and plays over-40 soccer in Marblehead, was playing in Lynn in 2016 when he made new friends and started attending community meetings in the city.

Beyond Walls founder Al Wilson, who lives in Marblehead, stands in front of a mural in downtown Lynn. CURRENT PHOTO / LEIGH BLANDER

“They were talking about helping the downtown area by adding more lighting,” he remembers.
That was the beginning of Beyond Walls, Wilson’s nonprofit that creates public art and experiences. It is based in that old machine shop on Mount Vernon Street.

“We hung 11 vintage pieces of neon artwork in spring 2017 to better light Lynn’s downtown streetscape,” he said.

A few months later, Beyond Walls installed 16,000 square feet of colorful LED lighting at three Lynn underpasses.

The team’s mission is to “activate spaces to strengthen communities.” It works in gateway cities, which Wilson defines as “former industrial cities with underutilized infrastructure.” Gateway cities are often first destinations for new immigrants. Lynn, Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill are a few examples.

A Beyond Walls artist creates a spray-paint mural.  COURTESY PHOTO

“Beyond Walls is a nonprofit placemaking agency that uses a creative lens to address community needs,” Wilson says. “We are a diverse group that believes cities best thrive when they are full of art and have engaged stakeholders and active spaces.”

The group has worked with more than 150 artists, both local and international, to create “large-scale, epic street art,” according to Wilson. Many pieces are in Lynn, but Beyond Walls projects can be found in 11 cities across Massachusetts.

The biggest is a mural covering the side of a nine-and-a-half story building at 23 Central St. The artist, SMUG, spray painted the artwork, called “The Resident,” which depicts a local man named Ferns. Ferns is a videographer who is active in the community.

‘The Resident’ buy the artist SMUG.

Wilson emphasizes that each project reflects the community in which it appears.

“That’s the way we curate,” he says. “We bring in artists who match up to the cultural identity of the community. We want people to feel represented. You are seen. You are heard. You are there in front.”

Beyond Walls works with Girls Inc., a nonprofit for inner-city girls, on several projects.

“The girls did some introspective writing and Al incorporated that into an installation at the Lynn Community Health Center,” said Linda Hall, who teaches literary at Girls Inc. “We also brought girls to watch artists while they were painting. One artist was from the Dominican Republic where a lot of the girls are from, and they were speaking with him in Spanish.

She continued, “The murals have created a lot of pride in the city. For them to see themselves up in the murals is really very powerful for them.”

Most Beyond Walls projects involve murals on private buildings or state-owned infrastructure, but there are also sculptures and other interactive pieces.

 This Beyond Walls mural is in Holyoke. COURTESY PHOTO

Beyond Walls also creates what Wilson calls “design response” projects, like the underpass lighting and portable outdoor handwashing stations. Students from Lynn Vocational and Technical High School helped build those.

Speaking of students, Beyond Walls educators lead students on public arts tours around Lynn in its Classroom to the Streets program.

Beyond Walls leads students on street-art tours through Lynn. COURTESY PHOTO

Beyond Walls, which has a staff of four, works with local city governments and community groups before launching a project.

“It’s really a three-legged stool,” Wilson explains. “Residents, businesses and elected officials need to be involved.” 

With an annual budget of less than $1 million, Beyond Walls relies heavily on local, state and federal grants, as well as corporate donations.

Looking ahead, Wilson hopes to “put Massachusetts on the map” for displaying the world’s best street artists.

“If you want to see a Bordalo [a world-famous street artist from Portugal], you can go to Miami or you can come to Lynn,” he says. “We are making gateway cities open-air street art museums. And there are no barriers to entry, no cost.”

Beyond Walls is unveiling a new lineup of artists installing building-sized pieces in Lynn on Aug. 15. Learn more at beyondwalls.org or on social media @BeyondWallsLynn.

Street-art tours are set for Aug. 24 at 6 p.m. and Aug. 26 at 1 p.m. They start and end at the Beyond Walls studio.

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Editor Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter.

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