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The Guide to the Local Way of Life on Cape Ann & Boston’s North Shore

Making Their ‘Punto’

Making Their ‘Punto’

A historic-but-overlooked Salem neighborhood is reborn as an unforgettable outdoor museum

 

The Point neighborhood in Salem, Massachusetts is many things.

It’s a grid of densely-built wooden and brick residences east of Lafayette Street, south of South River, west of Congress Street, and north of Chase and Leavitt Streets — about ten square blocks of buildings built as mill worker housing after the tragic 1914 Salem fire leveled the city.

The Point is a district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, because these early 20th century buildings are so architecturally untouched. And The Point — El Punto as it’s known by its Spanish-speaking residents — is home to hundreds of adults and their hopscotching, basketball-bouncing, bike-riding children and grandchildren.

The Point was originally constructed as housing for workers in nearby mills. French Canadians came first (the neighborhood newspaper was published in French). Today Latin music and the aromas of redolent Caribbean food stream into the air on a summer night. Dominicans are the majority here.

The Point is the same in many ways as it was in 1914. Historically preserved to be solid roofs over the heads of people coming to this country for opportunity. The languages the people speak and the jobs they are looking for have changed, but The Point — and its mission — is the same as it was one hundred years ago.

The North Shore Community Development Coalition (NSCDC) owns and manages 40 of The Point’s affordable housing properties. The Coalition serves the community in a number of ways: managing the properties, running a youth-build program for kids ages 16–24, helping minority small businesses get up and running, and offering English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, among other things. Along the way, the NSCDC learned the surprising value of public art.

 

Super Dali by Sipros

 

In 2013 The Point Neighborhood Association, the City of Salem and the NSCDC came together to create The Point Vision and Action Plan. They renovated the community’s parks and made it a priority to improve the quality of the housing. Ashley Shedd, Marketing and Event Manager for the NSCDC, points out that as a Historic District, the buildings are renovated to strict historic preservation standards, saving hardwood floors and marble stairways. But the action plan also identified a need to “reduce stigma” to undermine the common vision of The Point as a rough neighborhood.

As part of that directive, the group commissioned an artist to paint murals onto two neighborhood crosswalks. Machel Piper, Director of Development at NSCDC, says, “that artist was really engaging, talking to people who stopped to see what was going on. The President of the Beverly Bank walked by, and stopped to talk.” Suddenly, people in suits and people in t-shirts were there talking with the artist. Piper says, “there was no stigma.”

Back up a bunch of years.

• • •

In 1997, the United Way commissioned internationally known mural artist John Ewing to paint a group of murals on wooden panels in the community. By 2015, the weathered panels were removed for restoration, but, Piper says, “the residents thought we were getting rid of them and were very upset. That’s when we realized how important the art was.”

In 2017, the NSCDC began slowly integrating art onto the walls of their buildings. At first, the coalition commissioned three Spanish-speaking muralists. Speaking Spanish in this majority Dominican community was important, particularly when an artist is painting a three-story chrome French bulldog on the side of a four-story apartment building that a lot of people call home. But who doesn’t love someone standing on a sidewalk with brushes and buckets of colorful paints, or, here, a crate of spray paint cans?

The artists painted and people gathered — art and community intersecting. Argentinian artist Mariela Ajras recounted to Shedd that two little girls from the neighborhood stood drawing on a wall beside her as she worked. “Will you decorate our building?” they begged.

 

Garden Boy by Pixel Pancho

 

In September 2018, NSCDC hosted fifteen mural artists from around the world and New England for five days. They created 20–25 large scale murals and 25 small ones, including the “National Grid Wall,” an annually rotating display of 8' x 8' concrete panels decorated by local artists.

At the end of the week a neighborhood block party open to the public — Fiesta en la Calle — celebrated this massively impressive body of outdoor work with subjects ranging from exuberant to pensive to personal to Latin history. Today, the Punto Urban Art Museum welcomes visitors into the neighborhood to see these palatial pieces, the scale, color, and imagery of which feels like a cross between an outdoor sculpture garden and a visit to the dinosaur wing of the Museum of Natural History.

The Punto museum offers curated theme-based tours of the neighborhood and murals. Stigma no more, The Point neighborhood now proudly boasts its place as a major stop in the growing medium of urban art.

• • •

Nineteenth century Gloucester fostered the artist Fitz Hugh Lane, who painted regal schooners in shimmering harbors beneath luminous skies. In the 20th century, artists like Marsden Hartley and Milton Avery saw the sun-drenched, bolder-lined spaces of Gloucester’s Dogtown as important subjects. In the 21st century, at least one Gloucester artist is drawn to our urban walls, seeing this region’s working class architecture as his canvas.

Ian Staber (pictured at the top of this page and featured in the video above) lives in Gloucester with his wife and eight-month-old daughter, Lucy. Staber works as an architect, but for years he has been “writing,” practicing with and studying great graffiti artists, slowly identifying his personal “calligraffiti” style. Staber tags as “esotericalligraffiti.” He’s featured in this video painting his first large solo wall for the 2018 Fiesta en la Calle.

Staber first recognized his love for the graffiti art form staring out the windows of trains on his commute to high school in Fairfield, Connecticut.  “A litany of examples fed my interest.”

By then some of his friends were already filling Black Books, the graffiti writer’s masterpiece sketchbook, a critical part of honing their craft.

 

The Farmer by Ruben Ubiera

 

“A graffiti artist’s Black Book is for showcasing work in a paper medium and fleshing out ideas before bringing them to a wall,” Staber says, “but a lot of people pass it around at events for other artists to sign or make their mark. People really take the signing seriously; sometimes you don’t get your book back for a month. I have a book I use exclusively for other people to sign.”

Staber says the color and individuality of the pieces he saw from the train drew him to graffiti, but in those years he was also “dabbling in calligraphy,” already “practicing with low quality fountain pens.”

Staber went to college at Northeastern University for undergrad and graduate school, eventually receiving a Masters in Architecture. There, he met his wife, Alya, also from the architecture program. They married, moved to Colorado for three years, and then returned to the Boston area. (Their baby, Lucy, has a cameo at the video’s end.)

After returning to the Boston area, Staber discovered an artist doing exactly what he wanted to do, except Staber hadn’t known it yet. Dutch graffiti artist Niels Meulman (he tags as “Shoe”) first identified graffiti as part of the history of writing. Working with artists like Dondi White and Keith Haring in the 1980’s, Shoe created “Calligraffiti” — the intersection of calligraphy and graffiti.

 

“A word is an image — and writing is painting.”
— Dutch graffiti artist Niels Meulman, a/k/a Shoe

 
Dutch graffiti artist Niels Meulman (a/k/a “Shoe”) first identified graffiti as part of the history of writing. Working with artists like Dondi White and Keith Haring in the 1980s, Shoe created “Calligraffiti,” the intersection of calligraphy and graffiti.

Dutch graffiti artist Niels Meulman (a/k/a “Shoe”) first identified graffiti as part of the history of writing. Working with artists like Dondi White and Keith Haring in the 1980s, Shoe created “Calligraffiti,” the intersection of calligraphy and graffiti.

“A word is an image — and writing is painting,” Shoe declared. His work corrals together Abstract Expressionism and Blackletter script.

“I can get into this,” Staber thought, “this could be my niche.” But knew he needed a more solid lettering foundation. Staber began to study The Art of Calligraphy by David Harris and other references.

Commuting to his job at an architectural firm in Cambridge from Gloucester, another long train ride — this time the commuter rail — provided two to three practice hours a day for penning letters and learning the intricacies of established ancient scripts.

“Practicing on the train taught me confidence in my strokes.” Gothic Black Letter. Textura Quadrata. Fraktur. Staber practiced, but he also wanted to be more than an artful copier.

“Trying to establish myself, I wanted to create my own script.”

Staber is part Ecuadorian, modern descendants of the Inca. Ancient Incans communicated with a tactile language called Quipu, strands like a necklace from which hang different lengths of string. Each string has a certain number of knots in it; the number of knots correspond to letters or words in the Incan language.

To create his own script, Staber began with an English alphabet, integrated Gothic scripts and Chicano graffiti handstyles, and incorporated references to the Incan Quipu. The amalgam of styles and references coalesce into a script so unique that Staber rarely feels the need to sign his work.

 

Cat Witch by Okuda

 

As he worked in his books, Staber knew he still needed to build confidence working in the street, but cities and landlords don’t welcome eager artists with brushes, except in Cambridge. Conveniently close to Staber’s office is “Graffiti Alley” in Central Square. Graffiti Alley changed everything for Staber. The alley runs beside the restaurant Central Kitchen on Massachusetts Avenue. The restaurant owner allows anyone to go in there and write, a gift to these wall-hungry, spray-paint wielding artists.

“I went into the alley and started to practice with paint markers. I knew I wanted to get up near Shoe’s level,” Staber said. He told himself he would get out as much as he could and practice with the street as his medium, but he didn’t expect to be so easily welcomed into the community of other local artists.

“There were a bunch of graffiti artists there who were really well known. I wasn’t expecting them to be so interested in my work.” MerkThose, a prominent artist who works in a bold, illustrative cartoon style, became a sort of mentor to Staber.

“He helped me get out as a much as I could. He encouraged me to go bigger, and to refine my style. The first time my work was really showcased was after Trump was elected. A friend said let’s get together and do a big mural in Central Square dedicated to unity in this time of great division.”

Several artists got involved, and they painted the entire alley with Staber’s work as the centerpiece, a red, white, and blue half-circle with traditional black letters that read “Unity through Community,” his own script reading “Unity through collaboration,” and a large “Unity” in a more widely-readable yet still calligraphic style in the center.

“It was a humbling, welcoming event that included everyone from a twelve-year old kid to big names from across the country.”

The piece lasted in the alley for three to four weeks, an unusually long time for a piece not to get painted over by the next practicing artist. “In traditional graffiti culture, if you write over someone else you’d better be doing something incredibly good, or be ready for the fallout that typically comes with it,” Staber said. “But in the alley, it is expected to have your work covered by people that don’t know any better within a few days.”

 
Katherine  (left) by Paola Delfin and  Untitled  by Veronica Rivera

Katherine (left) by Paola Delfin and Untitled by Veronica Rivera

 

Staber began to meet more artists and attend more events, like Above The Radar in Burlington, Vermont.

And he began reaching out to more graffiti groups.

“There’s this barber shop/graffiti store on Huntington Avenue in Boston,” Staber says, “where they do Black Book nights once a week. I got a buddy or two I met from the alley and went there every week or so for a few months.”

At these events Staber had the opportunity to meet more artists of all skill levels from the community, share and refine his own style, and begin collaborations and commissions with the people he met.

Graffiti artists love big walls but they also love small US Priority Mail labels. Another niche within graffiti art culture is The Slap. Making Slaps means making masterpieces out of these postage labels using markers or paint, and slapping them somewhere highly visible, similar to traditional tagging. Through events like the Black Book Nights, Staber became involved in this part of the culture as well.

The Punto Urban Art Museum invitation in Salem was Staber’s opportunity to go big and push his style, but it had its challenges. His assigned four-story wall has a brick face littered with large windows. He had to navigate between the windows to create a readable design that could cover as much area as possible, creating more of a texture than a portrait style image that many of his contemporaries in the event were creating. In his signature script, Staber painted the words to the Aesop Rock song, “Rings,” the soundtrack of the video (see video, above).


The Artists of Punto


“Ever the architect,” Staber says, “I surveyed the wall, drew an elevation, and created the design with Auto-CAD.”

He chose the song not only because of the easily recallable lyrics or the correlation of “Rings” to the design, but because “Aesop uses a lot of diverse and complex words (see lyrics, below).” Ever the calligraffiti artist, Staber points out, “there are even a few z’s on the wall in Salem.”

The artistic nature of the song’s subject cements it as an excellent choice for the art centered impact on the neighborhood.

Aesop Rock liked the work so much he posted the video and images himself for his fans to check out and share.

It’s worth reading the lyrics to see how they could easily influence an artist, whose medium is words, to pour it all into their mural work.

Used to draw
Hard to admit that I used to draw
Portraiture and the human form
Doodle of a two-headed unicorn
It was soothin’, movin’ his arm in a fusion
Of man-made tools and a muse from beyond
Even if it went beautifully wrong
It was tangible truth for a youth who refused to belong
No name nuisance, stews in a bedroom
Oozing a brand new cuneiform
Barely commune with the horde
Got a whole gray scale ungluing his world
Might zone out to the yap of the magpie
Unseen hand dragging his graphite
Cross contour, little bit of backlight
Black ink after a Bristol to baptize
You can't imagine the rush that ensue
When you get three dimensions stuffed into two
Then it’s off to a school where it’s all that you do
Being trained and observed by a capable few
Back in New York, five peeps and a dog
In a two-bedroom doing menial jobs
Plus, rhymin’ and stealin’ and being a clod
Distractions free to maraud
I left some years a deer in the light
I left some will to spirit away
I let my fears materialize
I let my skills deteriorate
Haunted by the thought of what I should have been continuing
A mission that was rooted in a 20-year affinity
In rickety condition with an ID crisis
Nap on the front lawn, look up in the sky, it’s…

Shapes falling out of the fringe
All heart, though we would've made cowardly kings
They will chop you down just to count your rings
Just to count your rings, just to count your rings
And there were colors pouring out of the fringe
All heart, though we would've made cowardly kings
They will chop you down just to count your rings
Just to count your rings, just to count your rings

Used to paint
Hard to admit that I used to paint
Natural light on a human face
Stenciled fire on his roommate’s bass
It was blooming addiction
Amiss in the pushing of pigment
Book like a tattooed pigskin, look
Pinhead kids of the minute
Drank Kool-Aid from a tube of acrylic
And it grew up into linseed oil over linen
Joy to the poison, voice of the resin
Capture a map of the gesture
Back up, add a little accurate fat to the figure
Redo that, move that inward
Zinc white lightning shoots from his fingers
Studio strewn with illusion and tinctures
Stay tuned for the spooky adventures
You can’t imagine the stars that align
When a forearm starts foreshortening right
Or a torso hung on a warping spine
In proportion reads as warm and alive
Routine day with a dirt cheap brush
Then a week goes by and it goes untouched
Then two, then three, then a month
And the rest of your life, you beat yourself up
I left some seasons eager to fall
I left some work to bury alive
I let my means of being dissolve
I let my person curl up and die
Eating up his innards, an unfeasible anxiety
Has brutally committed to relinquishing his privacy
Aligning with the trials of the anti-Midas
Nap on the back lawn, look up in the sky, it’s…

Shapes falling out of the fringe
All heart, though we would’ve made cowardly kings
They will chop you down just to count your rings
Just to count your rings, just to count your rings
And there were colors pouring out of the fringe
All heart, though we would’ve made cowardly kings
They will chop you down just to count your rings
Just to count your rings, just to count your rings


The Salem piece is Staber’s favorite so far. He’s proud that it will remain a long-standing contribution to the El Punto neighborhood, to Salem and to the North Shore. At 37 Ward Street it can be viewed, like all the murals, any day, any time, another unique feature of urban art.

Staber emphasizes, “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of the community and this great program, or without the support of my amazing family, who constantly push me to push myself to take it one step further.” Staber says, “I am excited to see what the future holds and how my style will progress as I get more and hopefully even bigger opportunities.”

Ian Staber, count your rings.


Video courtesy of Jordan Garry of Up the Ladder Films. Photographs courtesy Punto Urban Art Museum.


▶︎ Punto Urban Art Museum, 96 Lafayette St. Salem, (978) 745 8071. For more information, visit the website.

 
 
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