Behind Somerville’s Painted Windows

Mandee MartinMandee Martin paints windows around Somerville, Cambridge, and Greater Boston. This design is part of a display at Two Little Monkeys. Photo courtesy of Martin.

Mandee Martin has loved letters ever since she was a kid. She dreamed of perfect cursive and worked at her bubble letters. She took to graffiti in her 20s, enjoying how the medium let her designs stretch.

She painted her first window about 10 years ago while working at Beth Israel Deaconess — “I felt like I was in a fish bowl,” she says of the unadorned glass — and it blossomed into a full-time window and sign-painting career. Now, Martin regularly decks out more than a dozen businesses’ windows in Somerville and Cambridge, plus more throughout Greater Boston.

Window painting is heavily tied to the seasons, Martin explains. Places including Two Little Monkeys have her come paint new designs four times a year.

“People, once I’ve painted once for them, kind of become friends,” she says. “I’ve made so many friends from painting. I feel like part of their little world … like my coworkers that I see four times a year.”

Martin regularly paints windows for local spots including Charlie’s Kitchen, 7ate9 Bakery, Petsi Pies, Magpie Kids, and Workbar in Union and Central Square.

While each window design is unique, there do tend to be recurring characters. A crab peeks out from many displays in the summer, and this winter Martin’s gotten into penguins and a polar bear that she “can’t get away from.”

“I have all these little characters in my head. When I look at a window, I see it, and I just love being able to go draw big, happy characters on windows for people,” she says. “Ever since I had a daughter I think my characters got a lot more happy, because I’m drawing for her, what [she] would like. I like hopefully entertaining people, making people happy.”

Martin’s designs are waterproof but most are not permanent—they can be peeled off at any time. A base layer of white acrylic house paint forms a sort of sticker, and then other acrylic paints and a “top-secret” black paint complete the design.

Mandee Martin

Mandee Martin’s design on the windows of Workbar in Union Square. Photo courtesy of Martin.

Window painting can be extra challenging in the winter, she explains. A display typically takes five or six hours of work, although she just finished a project that stretched a full city block and took 24 hours. On a recent day when the temperature dipped into the 20s she had to keep a heater on her paints so they wouldn’t freeze.

But she likes how passersby stop to talk with her and ask about the designs. She credits being part of a military family and moving around a lot as a child with her love of meeting new people.

“You get to chit-chat with people,” Martin says. “A lot of people like to stop and talk to me while I’m painting, and I love to talk to people while I’m painting, and it’s really, really cool.”