The question was how to slow traffic around Medford’s Brooks Elementary School to make it safer for students.
Last year, fourth-grader Eric Dobson and his third-grade partner Isa were in the school district’s Center of Citizenship and Social Responsibility, an afterschool leadership training program devoted to fixing social problems. They came up with the idea of painting a crosswalk with an optical illusion that would make it look, if you viewed it from the right direction, like a three-dimensional row of blocks was floating in the road.
They were inspired by a concept that seems to have spread from China and India and Iran to Iceland and France and North America: Montreal and Kansas City. The theory is that drivers seeing the illusion will slow down to figure out what’s going on.
Last October, the Cambridge City Council tasked city staff to look into “utilizing the Icelandic crosswalk design in an intersection in East Cambridge.” But city transportation and planning workers researched the idea and recommended against it: “In one formal study, between 10 to 14 percent of drivers swerved upon seeing the markings, perhaps believing them to be real raised objects in the roadway. Swerving would not be a safe maneuver … In another study, the addition of the three-dimensional markings did not produce significantly more yielding to pedestrians compared with regular crosswalk markings. In various studies, there was also no clear evidence that vehicle speeds were reduced.”
But earlier in the year, Medford Mayor Stephanie Burke “loved” the students’ idea for a three-dimensional crosswalk and had them present it to the city’s Traffic Commission in February 2018. “The commission gave them their support. It took a whole year, but this April vacation the student’s vision was realized,” Brooks Elementary School reports.
Which is where Boston artist Nate Swain comes into the picture.
Well, first the school contacted Somerville mural painter Liz LaManche, but she was busy, so she referred them to Swain. They contacted him two weeks ago to paint the school crosswalk.
“I was thrilled to do it because I was wanting to do one of these for a year or so,” Swain says. He’d lived in Boston’s North End for a number of years before moving to Sullivan Square in August 2016. “Where I live near Sullivan Square, I have to cross Mystic Ave. to get to the T station. So I was going to do one guerrilla … right on Mystic Ave. That’s super high speed, also a super wide street.” He acknowledges, “It was kind of a pipe dream.”
Swain says, “I always liked the idea of calming traffic.”
“I went to school for landscape architecture, got my bachelors degree for that, then worked for eight years as an AutoCAD monkey,” Swain explains. “I was designing roadways and parking lots and all sorts of car-oriented stuff. I know when you draw a landscape the car comes first. That was kind of an eye-opening experience.”
But Swain says, “Ten years ago I quit that to be an artist.”
In 2009, he got permission to cover the bricked up windows of the NStar substation at the corner of Prince and Salem streets in the North End with photo-murals that create the illusion of looking through curtained windows, with cats perched on sills and rooms decorated with vases and potted plants.
The following year, Swain covered the wall of the Assaggio restaurant facing St. Leonard’s Peace Garden on Hanover Street in the North End with a photo-mural depicting a leafy, vine-covered wall that he had photographed at the Arnold Arboretum.
Swain has also painted murals of forests, rivers and flowers at the old Bartlett Yard bus maintenance facility in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, at the Arsenal Mall in Watertown, on a building on Boston’s Beacon Hill.
He painted a 94-foot-tall sequoia that hung on Boston’s Government Center Garage along Merrimac Street. “We think it adds a nice element to the garage—one of the ugliest buildings in Boston,” Thomas O’Brien, the owner of the place, told Boston Business Journal.
At the edge of the Charles River, near the North Washington Street Bridge, on the east end of Boston’s Paul Revere Park, Swain has been assembling bricks to create a “Low Tide City” or “Barnacle City.”
He created a secret, guerrilla Zen rock garden in the shadow of the Zakim Bridge in 2013 and maintained it with the help of friends for a handful of years.
“I have the biggest guerrilla mural under the Zakim Bridge. It’s like 150 feet. I didn’t ask MassDOT [Department of Transportation] to do it. I just did it,” Swain says. At Artists for Humanity, where he’s the facilities manager, he paints the scenes on vinyl banners recycled from advertising billboards and then installs them at the site. “There’s sort of this attitude: If you want to do something colorful and nice, they’re kind of like just do it, as long as it’s not offensive or tagging.”
Swain says he snuck the first one up in 2014 and keeps adding. “I want to keep going. The wall keeps going. I’ve gotten into the idea of [painting] holes in the wall, holes just punched into the wall. Through this jagged concrete there’s this idyllic world that you want to crawl into.”
Around the summer of 2015, Swain patched a broken wall of a building along Congress Street by the Children’s Museum with Lego bricks. The Lego construction was broken and he repaired it a couple times. “Right before I was going to repair it for the third time, someone else repaired it for me. Which was really amazing.” When the wall was going to be torn down in 2016, contractors emailed him in advance, returning the Legos to him and allowing him to document the change.
“Log off” was a guerrilla project around Thanksgiving 2016. He wrapped a Boston Greenway building across from Rowes Wharf with a mural that made it look like a pile of logs. Greenway folks removed it after two days, he says, because they felt the magnets he’d used to hang the painting weren’t secure enough, and then returned the art to him.
He’s painted guerrilla murals of sunflowers and daffodils on supports under Route 93 in Sullivan Square, near the MBTA stop. He was commissioned to paint murals for Deano’s Pasta Shop in Somerville that suggest you’re seeing through the walls into the manufacturing, packing area and shop inside.
In 2016 and ’17, he was noticing dead trees and shrubs around Boston and began painting the bare trunks and branches red, white, blue. When he painted bushes at Paul Revere Park on the Charlestown side of the Charles River, a man complained and police arrived. “They were up for a day and a half. Later they got cut down and thrown in the wood chipper. They were really beautiful. I wanted to seem them last longer than a day and a half. It’s still barren land.”
Another time, he noticed the resemblance of some 1960s metal sculptures near Harvard Towers and the New England Aquarium to giant laptops. So in the summer of 2016, “I stuck on these decals of broken windows and a rotten apple and a power button.” The satirical tech logos were quickly removed.
And last week, Swain painted the 3D crosswalk at Medford’s Brooks Elementary School, across a newly paved driveway exiting from a parking lot in back of the school to Allston Street.
“It’s really cool. It’s really simple,” Swain says. “I wasn’t able to quite finish the illusion because there’s supposed to be these shadows that make it really float up, but the pavement is so dark.”
Medford plans to paint similar crosswalks at the city’s other elementary schools.
“It was designed for 35 feet away as the perspective point,” Swain says. “The further away you are the more you get this crazy illusion.”
“I’m currently going to be doing the biggest project I’ve ever done,” Swain says. He’s got his eye on a concrete wall that he aims to paint with waves. “It’s a quarter-mile long.” Swain continues, “I sort of have all these visions of applying paint onto concrete walls as quickly as possible, gallons and gallons, colors, just splashes. Boston kind of needs something daring.”
Another mural he’d like to paint is a scene on TD Garden that would look like a cutaway view through the wall into the stadium inside.
At times, Swain has been frustrated by limited opportunities to make public art around Boston, the bureaucratic hurdles that stymie ideas. Which is why his projects are guerrilla endeavors as often as not. These days, he says, “I just keep on keeping on, just keep picking away at it. I’m only one man. I have so many distractions. I have so many ideas that I want to do. … This year if I could get anything done, there’s a huge wall next to Artists For Humanity that Gillette owns on A Street.” It’s about 140 feet long and 70 feet tall. “I’d love to just wrap the whole wall in a forest or something. … There’s all these giant walls that I could totally transform.”
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