Downtown Boise has its fair share of alleys that are just what they sound like: narrow passages that house dumpsters and back entrances to downtown businesses. That’s with the exception, of course, of Freak Alley Gallery, with its giant goblinesque face painting that welcomes pedestrians to the largest open-air, multi-artist mural gallery in the Northwest, according to the gallery’s website.
The gallery sits between Idaho and Bannock streets, next to the pedestrian-only stretch of 8th Street, where most people’s gazes turn toward a bustling collection of restaurants. But off to one side between a pair of restaurants is an alley, where the walls come alive and make everything else in the area seem gray in comparison.
Wherever you look, there is graffiti-inspired artwork on every wall of the one-block alley: A giant skull with green flames in its eyes, a platypus in a small cage, something that can only be described as a blue oasis in the middle of a desert surrounded by evergreen trees.
It’s an outdoor homage to Boise’s local artists that first began in 2002. Today, as the gallery celebrates its 20th year, the alley is mostly a smooth, well-lit place to stroll that welcomes all ages and people. But for many years, that wasn’t the case.
Creating a safer experience
In spring 2018, Freak Alley Gallery was part of a city-funded, two-alley $500,000 renovation project that would fix the pavement and improve lighting to help make the busy alleyway safer. The alley on the east side of 8th Street, opposite Freak Alley Gallery, was also renovated.
The city laid down new pavement to fix the potholes and hung new lights high above the alley, allowing it to keep a natural feel. The dumpsters and battered steel posts embedded in the asphalt remain to help maintain the alley’s original appearance.
Those were important details to consider for former gallery curator and director of the gallery, Colby Akers, who handed over the reins to Melissa Nodzu in July 2019.
“We’re not adding seating or string lights,” Akers told the Idaho Statesman in 2017. “I don’t want to lose the nature of an alley.”
Those improvements are now complete, but what was the alley like before then?
“It was just real chunky and choppy before (the improvements in 2018), and then in the winters, it would fill up with ice,” Eureka! general manager Bryan Forcina, whose restaurant sits adjacent to the entrance of the alley on North 8th Street, told the Statesman earlier this month.
Forcina said that Eureka! has seen an upswing in foot traffic, especially during the evening because the restaurant is open until 11 p.m. most nights. Beforehand, the dark alley posed more of a safety concern than a fun downtown attraction.
“It’s been awesome for the city. It’s just so much cleaner with the new pavement and safer with the lights,” Forcina said. “Police walk down there and use their bikes, too. So it’s just a lot of great community engagement and community involvement.”
Several businesses back onto the alley, including a West Elm furniture store and the Juniper and Eureka! restaurants. Nodzu told the Statesman that local businesses have also been willing to cooperate with the alley because of the two-way relationship between them and the alley.
“They do support (the alley), because they know that it benefits the block as a whole and downtown Boise,” Nodzu said. “So they’ve done a good job of helping to support existing artists that are already in that space, and wanting to provide a canvas for people to work on.”
West Elm assistant manager Abraham Voytek told the Statesman that he thinks the 2018 improvements to the alley have led to more foot traffic inside his store.
“I feel like if there are people coming down, we get a lot more foot traffic that way,” Voytek said. “Because there are people wandering around, so it’s nice for sure.”
But Voytek also said that deliveries to West Elm could sometimes be difficult because their drop-off and pickup door backs into the alley and can only be accessed from 9th Street.
“It just gets a lot of visitors, so it does sometimes impede people accessing our back door pickup or loading zone,” Voytek said. “But otherwise, it’s a nice attraction to have. I feel like it’s usually well-maintained back there.”
Freak Alley Gallery has deep history
Despite improvements to the alley, business owners would like to see more.
Down the opposite side of the alley to Eureka!, Bespoke Custom Clothing owner Travis See has a deep history with the gallery.
Since 2011, local artists have created new artwork regularly for Freak Alley Gallery, working on top of old artwork to give it a fresh look. Before then, artwork remained in the alley for a lot longer, and See was one of the first artists to have their artwork featured in the alley in 2004.
See’s shop, located at the end of the alley on the 9th Street side, is the only business on the gallery that has windows that look straight outside.
As customers get measured for suits in his store, they often look out at the artwork. After they finish in his shop, See will show them more of the alley on their way out the door. But his prime viewing location also means he sometimes has to see the negative side of the alley.
“I would say that it could use some more light, and I’d love to see some cameras,” See told the Statesman.
He also said he didn’t see much vandalism down the alley in the first year after he opened in 2019, but thinks he has seen a gradual increase since then.
Earlier this month, See said he had to chase away a teenager who was tagging artwork in the alley. Ashley Dreyfus was also recently in the alley gallery fixing up some art that had been vandalized, her sister and manager Susan Dreyfus told the Statesman.
Gallery director Nodzu said that the alley has a security team that walks through every night and that they do have some cameras run by a private security firm.
“Anybody who tags the gallery, if they are street artists, they do not have the opportunity to participate in the refresh or ever be a participant in the gallery,” Nodzu said. “If you’re caught tagging and we can identify who you are, you’ll never have an opportunity to paint in the gallery.”
How to get involved
Freak Alley Gallery hasn’t received an extensive artwork overhaul since 2018 because of COVID-19, with just a handful of paintings added to the collection in late 2020 during the Treefort Music Fest. Nodzu said that she’s planning for the next major refresh to come in September.
“It’s really meant to be like a springboard for new artists or emerging artists to just kind of get their feet wet,” Nodzu said. “It’s just really to encourage emerging and new artists to just wet their palate.”
The alley is also set to host a number of events in the upcoming months. A music group will be performing in the alley on May 7 for a couple of hours, Nodzu said, giving visitors the chance to enjoy an “experiential DJ experience” while viewing the gallery. Nodzu also said that she is looking to partner with local businesses to raise money for the businesses and the alley.
“The idea is to create partnerships with the surrounding businesses to create merchandise that basically benefits both parties,” Nodzu said.
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This story was originally published April 22, 2022 8:32 AM.