City as Canvas: Above the Free Walls

This past February 25th, a number of students and I gathered virtually to watch local filmmaker Weiying Olivia Huang’s new documentary, “City as Canvas: Above the Free Walls.” This engaging film introduces viewers to the legal graffiti alley in Cambridge’s Central Square neighborhood, and a number of the artists who regularly paint there. The narrow bricked passage between businesses is formally named Richard B. “Rico” Modica Way, but commonly referred to as Graffiti Alley.

One of very few legal graffiti walls in the entire state of Massachusetts, Olivia became interested in the artworks and artists working here and soon began to plan for a documentary film. She received initial support from the Cambridge Arts Council to pursue the project, then, once filming and editing was completed, she received an ‘Expand Massachusetts Stories’ grant from Mass Humanities in 2021 to provide for a schedule of screenings and artist workshops in the community. I served as Humanities Advisor for the grant, and brought the film to the attention of our Simmons Panopticon student group. Panopticon is comprised of graduate students in the library and information science program at Simmons who are interested in art and art librarianship. I also serve as the faculty liaison for the group, whose interests align with my own teaching and research in graffiti and street art documentation, art documentation, and information organization.

Modica Way, September 2021. Photograph by Ann M. Graf.

We gathered that night to watch the film, which runs just over an hour, and then discussed it with Olivia, who answered questions about filming and the featured artists. What is evident from the story she tells about Modica Way and the artists who take advantage of a stress-free spot to create public art, is that there is a very positive response to the entire endeavor. There are occasional naysayers, one even shown in the film, but the artists are overwhelmingly pleased with both the opportunity to practice their art for all to see and the rest of us to be able to enjoy it. The walls change often, even daily, and Olivia knows of at least a couple locals who have been photographing the alley regularly for years, documenting the changes. Anyone can paint, not just those who call themselves graffiti or street artists, but regulars from around the globe have been known to stop by and paint when in the Boston area. Legal walls can be a fantastic artistic outlet, and provide joy for many.

Researching graffiti art documentation around the world, there is a mixed reaction to the works, especially when done on private property, though acceptance of the art form has taken hold in recent years. Especially significant has been the recent public art response to local and global crises, such as the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the almost daily news of yet another tragic mass shooting in the US.

Writers, as graffiti artists are sometimes called, have been noticed and their works documented online in various venues such as Flickr and Instagram, and on a multitude of websites designed specifically to feature a record of their works. This ad hoc, global community documentation of a sorts serves to preserve often all too fleeting artworks, sometimes painted over or buffed out within hours of their creation. The film discusses the need to make art, the mutual benefits provided to artists, businesses, individuals and communities, and the desire for more legal walls such as Modica Way, where graffiti artists and other public or street artists can paint without the fear of incarceration and also without damaging private property.

Olivia’s goal is to continue screenings after the grant period, and to further the documentary’s reach by securing a slot to air it on local Boston PBS affiliate WGBH-TV. View the film trailer of “City As Canvas” on YouTube at

New Position at Simmons!

I am very pleased to join the faculty at Simmons College in Boston, MA as an assistant professor this summer. Simmons has an excellent reputation in Library Science and Archives education and is a great fit for my teaching and research experience in information organization and art documentation. I look forward to the move east, working with an exceptional faculty and student body, and getting to know the Boston area.

ISKO Best Paper Award 2016

I had the privilege of traveling to Rio de Janeiro this past September to present my research at the 14th International Society for Knowledge Organization (ISKO) Conference. The theme of the conference was “Knowledge Organization for a Sustainable World: Challenges and Perspectives for Cultural, Scientific, and Technological Sharing in a Connected Society.” My presentation, “Describing an Outsider Art Movement from Within: The AAT and Graffiti Art,” was chosen as the best paper of the conference. All conference proceedings were published in volume 15 of the series Advances in Knowledge Organization by Ergon Press.


Onde há respeito, há paz (Where There is Respect, There is Peace) by Panmela Castro. Photo by Ann M. Graf. Click here for more information on this mural.

ALISE 2016 Works in Progress Poster References

Albrechtsen, Hanne, and Pejtersen, Annelise M. 2003. Cognitive work analysis and work centered design of classification schemes. Knowledge Organization 30(3/4): 213-227.

Becker, Howard S. 2008. Art worlds. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Bruce, Caitlin. 2014. “Transitional art, transnational murmurs: Post-revolutionary urban street art.” PhD diss., Northwestern University.

Jacob, Elin K. 2003. Ontologies and the Semantic Web. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology April/May: 19-22.

Mai, Jens Erik. 2008. Actors, domains, and constraints in the design and construction of controlled vocabularies. Knowledge Organization 35(1): 16-29.

Marchese, Christine. 2012. “Impact of organizational environment on knowledge representation and use: Cognitive work analysis of a management consulting firm.” PhD diss., Long Island University.

Olberg, Steven T. 2011. “Political graffiti on the West Bank wall in Israel/Palestine.” PhD diss., University of St. Thomas (Minnesota).

Phillips, Julie Dawn. 2002. “Gran Fury and the politics of AIDS: The rhetoric of visual argument in the gay and lesbian rights movement.” PhD diss., Purdue University.

Smiraglia, Richard P. 2015. Domain analysis for knowledge organization: Tools for ontology extraction. Amsterdam: Chandos.

Valesi, Marco. 2014. “Clean wall, voiceless people: Exploring socio-identitarian processes through street-urban art as literature.” PhD diss., University of California, Merced.

me 11-17-15 I am a PhD dissertator at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee in the School of Information Studies (SOIS). My research is in the area of knowledge organization (KO). I am studying how people gather, organize, share, and describe collections using various systems for organization, such as classifications, taxonomies, folksonomies, and metadata schemas. Their collections may consist of research articles, books, artworks, or even abstract things such as concepts or ideas.

Currently I am finishing up my dissertation proposal and getting ready for the work that will become the basis of the dissertation itself. I will be studying a particular non-academic domain of artists and art lovers and how they have organically developed a knowledge organization system, or KOS, to suit their needs.

When not working or studying, I enjoy running, biking, hiking, knitting, and photography. I began volunteering this past summer at the Urban Ecology Center, working as a Citizen Scientist helping to survey local odonate populations (dragonflies and damselflies). A long-time resident of Milwaukee, I have four children and two miniature schnauzers.