If it hadn’t been for the drizzly winter weather and an accidental bump on the head, Freak Alley Gallery in downtown Boise might never have been born.
“It was December in 2002, and I ducked into the back doorway of what used to be Moon’s Kitchen to get out of the rain and have a smoke,” said artist Colby Akers, founder and director of Freak Alley Gallery. “I noticed there was a small sketch on the door, and so I started drawing along with it, and, all of a sudden, the door opened and hit me on the head. The restaurant owner came out, and when I offered to paint over what I had done, she said, ‘No, just sign it and date it when you’re done,’ and then suggested I could cover the whole door. So I worked on it about a week. And then the owners of the building gave us more spaces, so we just kept going.”
Today, Freak Alley Gallery is an expansive and expanding urban art mural that covers the alley walls of an entire city block in downtown Boise. What began as an impromptu painting on a service entry doorway 14 years ago has grown to a showplace for the artwork of more than 300 artists, stretching between 8th and 9th streets and Bannock and Idaho streets. There is also an indoor gallery of the same name, owned by Akers.
“Primarily they are locally-based,” Akers said of the artists. “But, some of them are travelers, you know, hitchhiker types, or road tramps as we like to refer to ourselves,” he laughed. “We’ve had people from Seattle and Portland; people who lived here then moved away but keep coming back every year to paint. We’ve also had a lot of people from Salt Lake City over the past three years. One kid who has lived in Salt Lake for a year or two is originally from Cancun, Mexico, and he’s like, ‘Dude, we don’t have nothing like this in Salt Lake. Please let me paint.’ And, I said, you bet buddy.”
A Mash-up of Organized Chaos
This grassroots year-round art exhibit is a feast for the eyes. Artwork goes from ground level up to the roof in a colorful mash-up of styles and concepts, from realistic portraits to cartoons, to edgy graffiti, landscapes and pictures that only dreams, fantasies or nightmares can conjure. There are hundreds of paintings, all abutting the next one in a sort of organized chaos. While most are painted, at least two of the art pieces—portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jimi Hendrix—are instead constructed from shards of mirrors attached to the brick wall.
With such a diversity of artists and styles, one might think there would be a challenge with guidelines, but Akers said no. “We knew we were dealing with a public area that anyone from age 0 to 99 would see, so we had to keep it moderate for everyone and try to touch on a little bit of everyone’s taste, staying away from nudity or overt violence or drug references,” he said. “I remind the artists that there are kids and elderly who will be looking at the art, and there will be people who’ll like and not like what they do, no matter what the subject matter is.“
‘Permission to Give Others Permission’
For Akers, Freak Alley Gallery is part passion and part rebellion against the people and organizations that, over the years, said ‘no’ to his art. His voice cracked a bit as he explained, “It sort of came out of anger at being told no. I couldn’t get a show in this town to save my life,” he said, adding that many of the alley artists are also tired of having their work rejected, and Freak Alley gives them a space to shine.
“We’ll take anyone who wants to do this for the love of doing what they want to be doing,” he said. The artists don’t get paid, and Akers has also never earned a cent from the project. His living comes from driving a taxi for the past 13 years and also working with the property management company for the owners of the building.
When asked what Freak Alley means to him personally, he hesitated and then said, “I get paid with permission to give others permission. There are so many things that if I started explaining what it all means to me, I would end up being a mess. It is a very personal thing.”
The quality of art on display makes it hard to believe that it is put together by volunteer artists who earn no money, have very little materials to work with, and depend solely on donations. Akers has no funds to buy paint, so he relies on friends who are housepainters to donate leftover supplies. “I get a lot of bulk paint like white, beige and brown,” he laughed. “I try to at least provide the base paint to cover up the pieces that we are moving on from or if we are starting in a new area and they want a specific color background.” He added that Brown Rental has donated a basket lift for four years so artists can reach the top of the buildings with their paintings.
The walls are partially redone annually. Generally, from the first to the second Saturday of August the alley is shut down from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. to repaint the walls with new art. “We work through the night so we don’t interfere with normal alley function, because it’s a service alleyway with dumpsters and deliveries. I will stay as long as any artist wants to stay. It’s like, ‘your effort is my effort,’” he said.
‘Doing What We Want to Do’
Some of the Freak Alley Gallery artists started with Akers when they were in high school, and now they create artwork all over town, including with the city of Boise public art program.
“Some artists do it for the joy of just wanting to paint,” said Akers. “Some do it for career opportunity; some do it for admittance into art programs at schools. We have a lot of high school kids going into college for art and they use it for their resume. We’re just a bunch of people doing what we want to do.”