Transferable Murals Allow Artist’s Work to Stay In Public View

By teaming up with developers that plan on tearing down buildings, some creative types are helping the city's landscape stay crafty.

Image via Nate Swain

Image via Nate Swain

Nate Swain loves nature. So much, in fact, that he felt compelled to paint a 90-foot mural of a Sequoia tree last summer, based on a photo he once took while in California in the 1990s.

Using a mop that he dipped in paint to take care of the larger portions, and a broomstick with paint brushes fastened to the end for the more detailed parts, Swain set to work. “It’s such a huge surface, you need a big brush,” Swain said of the process, which took roughly 25 hours over the course of a month.

But once Swain finished the massive piece of art, there wasn’t really an appropriate place to hang something of its size. That is, until he met with a developer in Boston who agreed to let Swain temporarily plaster his picturesque portrait of the tree on the side of a building that’s going to be torn down. “He really liked it, and said, ‘yeah, we can do that,’” said Swain, a full-time artist in the city that recycles discarded pieces of vinyl used for larger-than-life-advertisements, and turns them into public murals. “In my way of painting murals on vinyl, and then mounting them to a building, people are apt to allow this because it’s easily installed, not permanent, and more easily removed.”

This type of unlikely partnership between street artists like Swain, and business-minded building developers, is becoming increasingly popular, as was seen with the temporary Bartlett Yard installation in Roxbury last year. It was there that hundreds of graffiti writers descended upon the property to transform it into a collective masterpiece, before the buildings are leveled and make way for millions of dollars worth of redevelopment.

During his own time contributing at Bartlett Yard, Swain spent weeks painting on long, discarded strips of vinyl material—his forte—and created the Sequoia mural. As he did it, he thought about ways he could get more of his works shown outside of that particular gated-development site. Because Swain’s style of artwork won’t forever mark a building’s façade, and can be easily strung up on the sides of properties and then transferred with relative ease, the artist saw it as a perfect opportunity to explore the city limits to find the perfect spot for it to be displayed.

Driven by his will to bring life to Boston’s bland, concrete landscape, and increase awareness about public art, Swain reached out a representative overseeing the Government Center parking garage project and gauged his interest in allowing Swain to hang the Sequoia tree along the outside of the building’s elevator shaft. After six months of negotiating, and soup-to-nuts planning, it was a done deal. “It went up yesterday,” said Swain. “The wall the tree is installed on, in five years it’s going to be torn down, so technically you could take down the mural and move it to another wall. So the art gets preserved.”

Swain hopes this approach and intuitive type of partnership can be mirrored for similar projects, so that more buildings slated for demolition can live out their final days as public galleries for residents and visitors. As he boasts on his website, he’s “on a mission to transform the realm of public space,” and the blank vacant neglected city walls are his muse.

Currently, Swain said he’s ramping up his efforts by collaborating with other artists nearby, and plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a new, ambitious proposition. Like the Sequoia tree, which serves as a metaphor for Swain’s artistic style—he calls it “go big, or go home”—the artist has his heart set on covering as much space as he can, all around the city.

He said he’s gearing up for a big project where he will create 52 murals in 52 weeks—half would be printed, and half would be painted—before trying to get them up on different building walls. “It’s pretty ambitious, but I have a lot of other people on board,” he said.

From there, if this concept of circumventing the city’s bureaucratic permitting process for outdoor installations, by going straight to private developers, works, he envisions his plan expanding throughout the community. “It’s recycling. It’s cool. I want to encourage schools and other places to allow kids to paint on this type of vinyl material, and make these giant murals, too,” Swain said. “I want to cover as many walls in Boston as possible.”