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  • Writing Boston:Graffiti Bombing as Community Publishing
  • Charles Lesh (bio)

Community publishing, graffiti, circulation, space and place, public writing


Around 12:00pm. My phone vibrates with a text from NIRO, a graffiti writer. "Down for tonight?" A few seconds later, a second text: "Big plans."


Around 1:00am. As we leave NIRO's apartment, we ditch all identification: school IDs, drivers' licenses, etc. "It's just more questions the cops can ask us if we get caught," he explains. We look suspicious: NIRO, openly carrying a five-gallon jug of reddish-pink paint, markers rattling in his pockets; me, with a smaller jug of dark red paint in my messenger bag, two paint rollers jutting out.

On the porch, NIRO pulls out his phone: "OK, so this spot isn't on Google Maps, but here is where we're going." He points to a beige area on the map, a cartographic margin. "Let's stay off major roads," he says.

We discuss escape routes, just in case: One, exit the way we came in, and run. Two, exit through a second hole, farther down the fence, and run. Three, run along the tracks, through the train yard, and hide.


We crouch behind an abandoned truck for five minutes, making sure no one has seen us enter the parking lot. Better to get spotted now, before the writing starts. With his black hat pulled low over his face, NIRO turns to me and whispers, "Ok, let's do it." We cut through a small hole in a second fence and emerge alongside the Massachusetts Turnpike, a highway humming with 2:00am Boston life. Ducked low to obscure my presence from the traffic, I look left and see the reason for our mission: a wall.


My role tonight is lookout. NIRO immediately gets to work, composing the outline of a roller, a large representation of a writer's name, completed with wall [End Page 62] paint and roller brushes. The letters NIRO crafts are easily twelve feet high and, in total, thirty feet long.

As NIRO fills in the R, a state trooper drives by. "Yo, down," I whisper, and we both get low. The car whizzes by. I'm not certain he hasn't seen us. NIRO keeps writing.


When he finishes the last piece of the fill, he steps back and admires his work. "This thing is f****** huge, man" he says to me, laughing. We quickly pack up the materials, cut back through the fence, and make our way back into the dark Boston streets.


Working as an ethnographer with graffiti writers in Boston, I collected a range of materials, and experiences.1 Looking back over the field notes, photographs or "flicks," interviews, and other community artifacts, I am reminded just how much of this research involved the type of kairos evident in this late-night scene, tactically identifying a time and place for a particular, and notably risky, rhetorical act. More so, what I see operating here is the production of a different city, a different articulation of urban space that affords the circulation of alternative community texts. Indeed, in working with graffiti writers—community members that Kurt Iveson calls "urban geographers par excellence" ("Introduction" 26)—I began to see Boston not as a single writing space to be divvied up, but rather as a palimpsest of competing cartographies: multiple spaces of writing in constant states of reproduction, dialectically coalescing, coexisting, or conflicting in the generation of urban meaning.

Graffiti writing is a patently spatial practice, and existing scholarship across disciplines has emphasized this situated relationship between graffiti and the production of, and resistance to, contemporary, neoliberal spaces.2 While I pull on this important scholarship throughout this article, here I want to think about graffiti in a specific way: as a form of community publishing. Or, put differently, I want to consider what writing events like the one represented above can teach us about community publishing. Despite the myriad forms it takes, community publishing is, at its core, about making the tools of publishing accessible to, and controlled by, authors. In this way, it seeks to facilitate a publication environment...


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pp. 62-86
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