Street artists turn taggers' territory into gallery space
"The Magic Alley,'' as Anthony Williams referred to it last week, comprises eight large murals along Litchfield Lane. Williams is artistic director for the Manchester neighborhood organization Eagle Eyes. An artist himself, he heads the group's Street Art Project, which replaces street "tags'' and graffiti with colorful murals and artistic scenes - many painted by former taggers.
The alley is where Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs was shot and killed by Michael Addison on Oct. 16, 2006. Eagle Eyes was founded soon afterward by Cheryl Mitchell, who lives nearby on Lake Avenue.
"Cheryl wanted to work with kids in the neighborhood, to show them what strength and goodness could do," said Williams. "She didn't want to see something like what happened here happen again."
The Street Art Project became an integral part of the effort.
"Art is like a tool, you just have to figure out a way to use it that works," said Williams. "There's something to what we're doing here because we haven't been tagged. We're like the magic alley. It's incredible."
Tagging is a form of graffiti with little artistic merit, done more for the sake of marking territory than for making works of art. It can also be a crime.
"If it's on public or private property without permission of the owner, it's a violation," said Manchester police Lt. Maureen Tessier.
The Eagle Eyes Street Art Project covers the tag marks with murals, with themes ranging from underwater seascapes to a portrait of New Hampshire's famed Old Man of the Mountain.
"That piece right there, that was done by free hand," said Williams, pointing to a scene set in Africa and featuring three large giraffes. "Can you believe a 16-year-old did that, all by free hand? These kids have a talent. You could see some of it before, mixed into what they were doing, but this program has really brought the artist out in them."
John Mitchell, one of the organizers of Eagle Eyes, says the Street Art Project is working.
"Before this project started, the garages along there were being tagged by vandals all the time," said Mitchell. "Since the project started, the incidents of tagging have gone down."
Once a mural is finished, taggers leave it alone. Neither Mitchell nor Williams are sure why that is, but both have theories.
"I think it's because they have their names on these pieces," said Williams. "The children that helped out on these pieces, they live in the neighborhood. They tell their friends, word gets passed around, and no one touches them."
"We've had murals that were created in that area in 2008, and they've never been tagged," said Mitchell. "... It's almost like it's considered bad form to mark up someone else's work."
Williams said he recruits new artists in a direct fashion.
"You have to physically confront them," said Williams. "I saw a few of them tagging at the skate park, and you just go up to them. You challenge them. 'We've got enough negativity in this world, why can't you give something a little more positive. Come and join us.' A lot of kids that have negative energy, they can turn it around. You just have to bring out the art in them."
Williams said he and others involved in the project don't ask too many questions of the youngsters.
"We have tried to pry a little bit, but we don't try and play mom and dad," said Williams. "When we ask them about certain gangs, they clam right up and we lose them. They don't want to say anything. When you get these kids away from that, away from that environment, there's so much energy there ... it's just incredible."
The program has wrapped up for 2012, but Williams and Mitchell said they will begin lining up more projects in the spring, asking residents to let their garage doors double as canvasses.
"We can't stop now," said Williams. "I'm either stubborn, stupid or both. This will work. It's got to work. Look around here ... I think you'll agree that it is."