Images furnished by SPEK
In the world of Bay State graffiti, Adam Brandt is tantamount to Jesus Christ. Sounds extreme, sure, but to an underground community that’s faced decades of direct persecution, he is a martyr, among the first people in Massachusetts to do jail time for tagging. Better known as SPEK, Brandt was among the select aerosol wizards who became prolific enough in the mid-aughts to summon a sophisticated crackdown on street art.
Having covered the takedown of SPEK, and of other Mass graf stalwarts like the formidable CAYPE, who in 2007 was sentenced to serve one year in the South Bay House of Correction, I was surprised to hear that Brandt had a show coming up at The Uniun in Somerville. From what I’d heard, he slipped into retirement after jail, his Krylon halcyon days behind him. Countless boxcar artists make the jump to galleries—I’m all for it—I just didn’t think that SPEK was one of them. I had to find out more about his journey.
Raised in Reading, Brandt’s earliest memories of murals are from riding the Orange Line, namely through the stops north of Boston. He recalls tremendous spreads from the likes of MES, MONK, and others whom he wound up smacking walls alongside later on in his career. While at first he was shy and alone on the scene, in time Brandt became ubiquitous. He says, “We did the Mass Pike, and a lot of the subway trains.” A friend of his whom I contacted for this story is less modest about SPEK’s past visibility: “Not only has he made a mark on the Boston streets, but is known worldwide for the vast number of freight trains he had painted. He encompasses all that a traditional writer should be, from tags, throwups, straightletters, pieces, trains, streets, etc.”
But with props came heat, as Brandt’s tag, along with those of others in his weight class, became too common for authorities to ignore. Cops in different cities—namely in Salem, a longtime hub for beautiful decay—had made petty arrests and scared lesser artists straight for decades. Around 2007, however, authorities from more than half-dozen municipalities joined forces to stop graf in its metaphorical tracks, and diligently went about doing so. As I wrote back in 2008:
If SPEK was a Moby Dick of sorts for the consortium of Bay State vice squads, Boston Police Department (BPD) Detective William Kelley and MBTA Police Lieutenant Nancy O’Loughlin have been SPEK’s Ahabs, chasing the outlaw artist for a decade. Greater Boston Area Graffiti Task Force—within a year they’d taken down half-a-dozen East Coast kings, SPEK among them, by documenting every tag they wrote, from Salem to Southie.
All these years later, Brandt, now a father, concedes that his writing habits may have gotten out of control: “I don’t even know when things got hot … Around 2004 it was every weekend. We were just doing so much that I didn’t pay attention to anything else that was going on.” He also says the months he spent in county jail in Middleton in 2008 were “terrible.” Brandt illustrated greeting cards for other inmates to send to their families, but otherwise grew uninspired. To make matters worse, he was released with five years to serve on probation, and spent several months unemployed as a result of his criminal status. “During that time I wasn’t doing any art whatsoever,” he recalls. “It was pretty stressful.”
Brandt eventually got back the truck-driving job he had before jail; not long after that, he was contacted by a private art collector asking if he had any paintings, and his second act was soon born. “I wasn’t doing that kind of thing before,” says Brandt of the transition from concrete to canvas. “It took a little bit of getting used to, but now I have a little studio where I build the frames and paint.”
Like almost every other graf writer I have ever interviewed, Brandt speaks softly and reluctantly. He’s also incredibly humble considering his genius, telling me, “Now I’m just an artist. I put out city scenes, urban styles, with a little graffiti style, obviously.” His friend Jay, a mentee who helps Brandt with the gallery hustle, paints a narrower stroke: “Growing up, [SPEK] was a staple on the Boston highways. As a young kid that was all I remember recognizing—his signature style mixed with fantastic color schemes really helped him stand out.” Jay continues: “After meeting Adam, the cool graffiti persona that I had imagined was more than true. He was not only a amazing writer, but a talented artist, extremely humble, and a genuinely awesome human being. His past experiences really shows through in his work … What really sets Adam apart from other graffiti writers is his story.”
As for those old stories, Brandt says he sometimes sits around with old graf friends reminiscing; it’s inevitable. But with his first-ever solo collection being revealed this week, and other shows and installations in the works, Brandt has as much of an appetite for tagging walls as he does for the food at Middleton.
“I’m just over the graffiti thing,” he says. “I’m looking forward to creating new things. We reminisce, yeah, but we definitely talk about the future too, and trying to profit off of it.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.