Unraveled: The Mystery Of The Secret Street Artist In Boston

Apr 5, 2016
Originally published on April 7, 2016 4:02 pm

I first noticed it in a neighborhood of Boston aptly called the "Innovation District." On a crumbling corner of an old brick building, there was a gaping hole created by about 15 missing clay bricks, filled in with about 500 Lego blocks.

I was determined to find out who the artist was.

"I don't know!" I was told by folks working in the building. Their property manager had no clue, nor did the people at Lego. "If you hear, let us know," said brand relations manager Amanda Santoro.

"It's a mystery," says Emily O'Neil, executive director of the Fort Point Arts Community, a group of artists who've long occupied the old warehouses in the neighborhood. "When we first saw it, the reaction from the community was literally, 'How wonderful, guerilla art has come back!' "

One day, I came across an Instagram picture of the Lego patch — in pieces.

That's when I found Nate Swain, a former landscape architect trying to make it as an artist.

"I saw this gaping hole in the wall ... and it was just sort of having fun with what most people would consider a problem," he says.

Swain swept in and did it under the cloak of darkness late one Sunday night, and ever since he has been privately giggling at his very public joke.

But more recently, Swain — a former landscape architect who quit his cubicle to try to make it as an artist — started having second thoughts about his anonymity. He agreed to go public with this story.

It turns out Swain has pulled his jokester genius all over the city — the Lego patch was not his only project.

He has covered boarded-up windows with giant photos of furnished rooms.

He has scaled down a 20-foot wall into the Fort Point Channel to build an underwater surprise that you can only see when the tide goes out.

"I just wanna make people laugh and maybe question," he says. "If you catch their eye and snap them out of their consensus trance that they're in and make them just think ... that's what I really wanna do."

Like most of his work, Swain says, the Lego patch was part prank and part political commentary. It was meant as a nod to the neighborhood's need for a police station and to the building boom's squeeze on local artists.

Swain says he'll find ways to keep planting pops of color, joy and jokes in surprising nooks around the city. Hoping to boost his career, he says, he will now start marking his work so people will recognize it as his when they see it.

His friends call it Swain-spotting.

Hear the full story about the mystery and reactions to Nate Swain's art by clicking on the audio above.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Public art often calls attention to itself with big-name artists, giant outdoor sculptures and enormous murals on the outside of buildings. NPR's Tovia Smith brings us this story from Boston about one tiny installation that's creating big buzz.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It's been a mystery in a neighborhood of Boston aptly called the Innovation District, where on the crumbling corner of an old brick building, shiny shards of color catch your eye.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Do you see that? That's so cool.

SMITH: A big hole left by about 15 missing clay bricks is filled in with about 500 Legos.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: A building made out of Legos? Look at that.

SMITH: Primary red, yellow and blue, and a Lego police station complete with Lego windows and Lego doors.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I love it. Every day it just brings a smile to my face. That's always the question is, you know, who did it?

SMITH: I was determined to find out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I don't know - a local, creative artist.

SMITH: The guys who worked in the building had no clue - nor did their property managers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hi, no, unfortunately (laughter).

SMITH: So who was this genius slash jokester?

EMILY O'NEIL: It's a mystery.

SMITH: Emily O'Neil heads the Fort Point Arts Community, a group of artists who've long occupied the old warehouses in the neighborhood.

O'NEIL: We have chosen to not figure it out.

SMITH: The mystery is part of the charm, she says - a throwback to the good old days before gentrification quashed these kinds of artistic stunts.

O'NEIL: The reaction from the community was literally, how wonderful guerrilla art has come back.

SMITH: I might have let it go, but then I saw the Lego patch in need of repair. A few clicks on social media, and I was onto the guy.

NATE SWAIN: Hello?

SMITH: Hi, is this Nate?

SWAIN: Yeah, this is Nate.

SMITH: Hi.

Gently, I asked if he knew anything about the Legos.

SWAIN: I do. I'm responsible for the Legos.

SMITH: You did it?

SWAIN: Yes, I did it. Yes (laughter). I saw this gaping hole in the wall. And it was just sort of having fun with what most people consider a problem.

SMITH: He did it under the cloak of darkness, late at night. And ever since, Nate Swain has been privately giggling at his own public joke.

SWAIN: I would see kids playing with it, and it was, like (laughter) - it was so cool.

SMITH: But more recently, Swain, a former landscape architect trying to make it as an artist, started having second thoughts about his anonymity.

SWAIN: I have to start making a name for myself.

SMITH: And so he agreed to be outed in this story as he ventured out, this time in broad daylight, to repair his Lego repair.

You don't look like a vandal.

SWAIN: Especially when I'm dressed in a hi-vis traffic vest and look like I work for the city.

SMITH: Swain has been on a mission - covering boarded-up windows with giant photos of furnished rooms, filling a rumble strip with neon-colored fish-tank gravel, and jumping a bridge to build an underwater surprise you can only see when the tide goes out.

SWAIN: My friends called me the spasmodic public art Batman (laughter).

SMITH: Like most of his works, Swain says the Lego patch was part prank and part political commentary on the neighborhood's need for a police station and the building boom's squeeze on local artists.

SWAIN: If you catch their eye and snap them out of their consensus trance that they're in and make them just think - it's what I really want to do.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: You're fixing it? Cool. Was it your original art?

SWAIN: It was, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Amazing.

SMITH: Crouching over his Lego repair with a bucket of cement and a bag of Legos, Swain draws a crowd.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Nice to meet you. Nice to know who actually did the artwork.

SMITH: Swain's now decided to start marking his work, hoping that Swain-spotting, as he calls it, will become a thing.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yeah, it's real.

SMITH: You want to get your name out there so...

SWAIN: Yes.

SMITH: ...You can help me sign off here. In Boston's Innovation District with...

SWAIN: ...Nate Swain...

SMITH: ...Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.