Pixnit was here

Her urban-art spores adorn public and private property. But some see her as a menace.

By Matthew Shaer, Globe Correspondent | January 3, 2007
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CAMBRIDGE -- At 2 a.m. on a Monday in November, this stretch of Massachusetts Avenue, from Plympton Street to Harvard Square, is lit up like a vintage pinball machine. So it's testament to Pixnit's experience that even in the neon glow cast by nearby storefronts she can vanish, almost completely, into the smallest of shadows. There's a practiced grace to every motion: the stencil fitted to the dark slice of pavement, the aerosol yanked from a black backpack, and then three passes with the blue paint. By the time a passerby kneels to examine the art -- a small, pastel flower Pixnit calls a "spore" -- Pixnit is halfway down the block, her hands, covered in black fingerless gloves, in her pockets.

"Why are we so afraid of paint on walls?" she says, later that morning. "What is it, exactly, that we're afraid of?"

This is a question that has been plaguing Pixnit, who refuses to reveal her real name publicly, her entire life. She tagged walls as a kid in the Southwest, and says that by the time she came east to get her master's degree from Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts , she had created hundreds of pieces of urban art. But it's in Boston that Pixnit has achieved her greatest -- and what she hopes will be her lasting -- fame.

After seeing her graffiti around Boston, the Globe attempted to find Pixnit. A reporter eventually tracked her down through her MySpace page , and she e-mailed back from an anonymous address. She agreed to meet in person but would be photographed only with her face partially disguised. The Globe does not know her real name.

In just more than a year, Pixnit has populated every neighborhood from Jamaica Plain to Somerville with her spores, which can be red, white, blue, or green. She's painted the tops of buildings in the Back Bay, alleys in Allston, bridges in Fort Point, and dumpsters in the South End. She's shown at a handful of local galleries, including the Rhys Gallery . A sticker campaign is in the works, along with a plan to sell her stencils around town, so the spores can "reproduce." And she's never been apprehended by the police. All of which has made Pixnit one of Boston's most polarizing alt-art outlaws.

"A lot of artists I know are interested in street art -- it's an inspiration for them," says artist James Manning , assistant director of exhibitions at the New England School of Art & Design at Suffolk University, who is acquainted with Pixnit. "Pixnit takes it much further. "

"She's one of the few stencilers out there who are actually carving out a name," says Kerry Simon of Allston, a local urban artist and clothing designer who does not know Pixnit personally. "And there is no one out there who is going for the coverage she's going for."

But Pixnit's prolific street profile has also made her a target of local residents, who say they spend thousands of dollars each year to remove graffiti. In neighborhoods such as the Back Bay and the South End -- where Pixnit has left a series of bright spores, sometimes atop hard-to-reach four - and five - story buildings -- a collision with police and graffiti-removal groups seems inevitable.

Repeated requests for comment from police in Boston and Cambridge went unanswered. Anne Swanson, the chairwoman of a local group called Graffiti NABBers , a part of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay's crime committee, says she is very familiar with Pixnit's work and would "love to know the identity of this tagger."

"A real artist would come forward and acknowledge the 'art,' " she added. "This is graffiti vandalism like any other."

Swanson says the members of Graffiti NABBers devote an incredible amount of time and energy to halting the spread of graffiti , which they see as destructive to the area's architectural fabric.

"Everything in this neighborhood has to be micromanaged. Unbelievable care goes into every sign, every step, down, even, to the type of material used for windows," said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association. "People go through a lot of hoops, so to have someone come in, considering themselves an artist, and putting their graffiti everywhere -- it's just downright wrong."

Pixnit launched her Boston campaign in the spring of 2005, shortly after she says she earned her master's of fine arts. Initial spores were small, and often imprecisely executed. But many of the pieces were not painted over by residents and business owners who like her work, so Pixnit says she began to work bigger, experimenting with different colors and shapes, and with different locations -- crosswalks, hard-to-reach walls, manhole covers.

"Her work began to really blossom," says Maryellen Latas , a sculptor who is represented by the Barbara Krakow Gallery on Newbury Street. "On a formal level it's become more and more highly developed. It portrays a real sense of beauty."

Pixnit has become an anomaly on the local graffiti circuit, which is composed largely of younger, lone - wolf taggers. Bubble letters and sprawling, shapeless designs dominate most walls here. Since there is no community among area taggers, the art tends to be less refined than larger operations in cities like New York.

In fact, Pixnit, who is 33, bears little resemblance to the popular image of a tagger. She is a well-educated artist -- not a rough-around-the-edges high-school drop-out -- and her work is nuanced and dynamic. In person, she is articulate, often launching into long diatribes on the state of modern street art, and is astonishingly pretty, with a wide, off-kilter smile.

"There's a certain mold that Pixnit is shattering, definitely," says Latas, who has met her. "Graffiti, as a form, is typically perceived as being made by a less-educated teenager. It's exciting to see her doing this."

This willingness to see Pixnit's work as revolutionary, though, is not shared by everyone on the local art scene. Rhys Gallery director Lydia Ruby, who helped bring Pixnit's art to the Rhys in 2005, confessed she was "unsure, really, how to feel about it."

"I live in the South End, and I see [graffiti] on a regular basis. It can be gratuitous and really obnoxious," Ruby said. "But there's obviously an allure to her art."

For business owners and managers in areas that Pixnit frequents, a similar sort of uneasiness prevails. Erin Scott, the manager of New England Comics in Allston and a member of the nonprofit Allston Village Main Streets program, said she was split between her fondness for urban art and the mission statement of the AVMS, which promotes "ongoing graffiti removal."

"One of [Pixnit's] pieces was left up above Steve's Kitchen, because it looks pretty awesome," Scott said, referring to the popular diner on Harvard Avenue. "She does seem respectful."

Scott added, however, that she has "no tolerance for people who tag up my windows. Sometimes graffiti is graffiti."

Chris Giroux , who manages the Seven Stars shop in Cambridge, says he knows Pixnit; he was hesitant, however, to endorse her work. "In [Jamaica Plain] there are lots of people who commission artists to legally do graffiti -- they'll give you a big, blank wall," Giroux said. "But to destroy the property of someone else without consulting them first? That's not good."

The divisive feelings her art can inspire are not lost on Pixnit.

"My work is illegal," she says. "I'm not an advocate for graffiti being legalized -- the illegality is what gives it its bite. I'm just most interested in creating and sustaining a kind of culture."

If caught, Pixnit would likely face large fines and an order to make restitution; jail time would be a worst-case scenario. But for now, she has showed no signs of slowing down. She has new stencils in the works -- with plans to sell them through local galleries -- and has signed on with Gallery Revisited in Los Angeles for an upcoming show.

"I do worry about Pixnit on a personal level, because there is so much risk with urban artists. I wouldn't want her to get arrested," said Leora Lutz , the owner of Gallery Revis i ted. "But what she's doing is so fascinating -- this juxtaposition of high art and urban art. Besides, with anything you do in life, there's a risk, right?"

Asked whether property owners in Boston had a right to be angry about graffiti, artist Simon said, " No matter how many laws people make, people are going to put this stuff where they want, and how they want. You're never going to stop graffiti."

He laughed, then added: "I understand their annoyance. If my stuff got tagged, I'd probably pretty angry, too."