Another aspect of Gaia that impresses people is his age: 24. “I started really young,” he says. “That is alarming to a lot of people. They say, ‘Oh, you don’t deserve that.’ ” But, he adds, “you grow as big as the fish tank you are in.”
Gaia’s father is a financial adviser; his mother a holistic health counselor. He says he was a classic New York kid— “sophisticated children, with no siblings, who think they know everything about the world and are doted on by their parents.”
Although he appreciated the artistic education he received at a Waldorf school — “We would paint to the band the Eurythmics. Or from ballet movements.” — he never connected it to something he would do professionally.
Gaia also wasn’t thinking much about street art until he met a tagger on My Space. The two started up a conversation about graffiti, which graduated to making whimsical stickers. “I would obsessively make all these stickers — of chubby figures with big eyes — and post them anywhere,” Gaia says. Then, after studying the work of street artists Swoon and Elbow Toe, Gaia started making linoleum cuts, which allowed him to replicate his work quickly. The massive cuts portrayed fairy tale-like faces of sad children and animals, beautiful images that drew contrasts with the neighborhoods they illustrated with their appearances on abandoned buildings.
Deciding he needed to go beyond his Upper East Side environs, Gaia started to “really get to know my city in a holistic fashion, outside the voyeuristic standpoint. That is how I was navigating the city, through street art.”
People started writing to him on My Space, seeking to purchase his prints. Still in high school, he was making about $250 a week. At that time, though, “I wasn’t knowledgeable of the culture of graffiti.”
Then, he learned about wheat paste — a liquid adhesive often used to install wallpaper. “I found it the most ingenuous concept. It meant you could work with something before putting it on the street.”
His early works questioned human nature, depicting humans morphing into animals. “The animal-man hybrid was pleasing to me. It had a lot of emotion. It viscerally spoke to people.” Over the years, his art has come to focus on the destructive path he believes humans are taking, such as climate change. In his work, he says, he tries to take viewers through a “social rabbit hole” of thought into neighborhoods they might not otherwise see, encouraging them to think about issues such as environmental degradation, urban blight and gentrification.
Gaia has addressed gentrification in Washington with his mural “Dusk of H Street,” which appears on the side of Smith Commons Dining Room and Public House in Northeast. It portrays a man-rooster pulling apart a red cape to reveal an Albert Bierstadt landscape of Yosemite that the artist says represents the 19th-century American ideal of manifest destiny.
This summer, he curated the Open Walls Baltimore Project, which brought internationally known artists to the city to create murals that would transform urban spaces, revitalize communities and perhaps prompt people to talk.
Such projects have helped Gaia developed an affinity for artists such as Gauguin, who also traversed cultures and communities. Gauguin’s experience “resonated with me as a young white artist navigating some of the most divested places in the world to apply my artwork,” the artist says. “My ease and mobility to move in and out of these kinds of landscapes is most definitely problematic but simply undeniable.”
through May 5 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Dr., Baltimore. 443-573-1700. www.artbma.org.