Academics, Street Art Merge in Harvard Square

Unnamed photo
Bora Fezga

A wall outside The Tannery currently features a mural by contemporary artist Shepard Fairey.

While most thesis-writing seniors are making the library their second home, Cydney E. Gray ’09 is taking her thesis to the streets of Harvard Square.

Gray, a Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator in Currier House who is working on a thesis about street art, has been interviewing and filming such artists since September.

As part of her research, she filmed celebrated artist Shepard Fairey, creator of the Obama “Hope” poster, as he put up murals in Harvard Square last month.

A crowd of 30 watched as Fairey created the two murals, according to Denise A. Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association.

“When he was there installing it, he literally stopped traffic,” Jillson said. “Cameras suddenly appeared. It was instantaneous.”

One of Fairey’s works—a painting entitled “The Rose Girl”—will remain at its present location on a wall next to The Tannery, but the other, which was located on the plywood face of a construction site, has been removed.

Fairey is one of seven subjects Gray is using in her thesis to examine how currently influential artists have progressed from working outside on the streets to being featured in galleries.

“I’m taking a look at people who are famous and are in the public eye, such as artists who are gallery artists, and seeing how they started out with graffiti art and street art,” Gray said.

Fairey, who has been using streets in the Boston area as his canvases, will also be showcasing his work at the Institute of Contemporary Art come February. His colorful roadside pieces were also a way to raise awareness before the opening of his exhibition, Gray said.

“It was a way to get his name out there and have people recognize his work and have them still know he is a viable street artist,” Gray said.

VES professor Ruth S. Lingford, who is Gray’s thesis advisor, said that it was ironic that an art form that was previously considered “demographic and amateur” is now prominently displayed in galleries.

She also said that her work with Gray has greatly changed her own view of street art.

“I hate street art personally. I think that it’s done by the strong to intimidate the weak,” Lingford said. “Working with Cydney has actually overturned some of my preconceptions about it.”

Jillson said that it was interesting to see how much attention the murals had attracted.

“I looked down upon the artwork all the time [from my office window]. It’s amazing how many young skateboarders and hipsters around Harvard Square are aware of Shepard Fairey’s work.”

—Staff writer Bora Fezga can be reached at
—Staff writer Betsy L. Mead can be reached at