From far away, it looks like any other billboard you might find in any neighborhood that hasn’t yet adjusted to its disparate offerings of $12 Iberian ham charcuterie plates and crumbling, abandoned buildings. The old — advertisements for McDonald’s and Army recruitment — peeks through tears in the new, upscale ads for British Airways and Whole Foods.
It’s not a real billboard, though: It’s a trompe l’oeil mural by Specter, a street artist from Montreal. More than any other of the 23 murals going up in Baltimore’s Station North arts district, it sums up a familiar urban archetype: Decimated neighborhood acquires a buzzworthy, artsy look, and with it, a new population. But Baltimore’s Open Walls public art project resists such a simple narrative.
Bring up the word “gentrify,” and Gaia, the 23-year-old street art prodigy who curated the mural project, will shake his head.
“Artists don’t gentrify neighborhoods. They don’t have the capacity and/or the money and/or the capital and/or anything. But we’re used as a tool,” says Gaia. “When you think about it, [public art] is something that can be politically charged, but it’s bringing beauty and quality and an attractive force to this neighborhood.”
This neighborhood is Gaia’s neighborhood. It’s also a neighborhood for actors and artists and longtime Baltimore residents who live in subsidized housing. It has recently become a lot more colorful.
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Gaia, who goes by only the one name, has been painting and wheat-pasting on the streets — often illegally — since he was a teenager growing up in Brooklyn. With a mop of curly hair and a broad smile, he looks younger than his 23 years, and on the day he leads a reporter on a mural tour, he is wearing a T-shirt with wordplay that conflates famous artists with rappers and athletes: “Muhammad Dali, Beastie Beuys, Lil’ WeiWei.”
He got accepted to Maryland Institute College of Art but spent much of his college years being called away to do mural commissions across the United States, Europe and Asia; he declines to say how much he is paid.
Baltimore is his adopted home town for now, and he loves it. After doing a few large-scale mural projects elsewhere — Wynwood Walls in Miami and Living Walls in Albany, N.Y. — he decided that if other cities could attract world-class artists to produce outdoor museums of public art, he had the reach and ambition to do the same in Baltimore.
Charm City is an especially fertile ground for street art, considering its multitude of abandoned buildings, its quirky character, and its generally permissive attitude toward street art, which some cities treat as destruction of property. Street art differs from graffiti in its intent: It’s more about creating art than staking out turf. The work of street artists parallels that of studio artists, but it urges passersby to consider their urban surroundings, whether in a mural that was commissioned or an alley wall painted illegally.
Gaia needed cash to make the Baltimore project happen, so at his senior thesis show, he pitched the idea to William Backstrom, a manager in PNC’s community development division. Backstrom liked the sound of it enough to make an institutional donation, and Gaia teamed up with Ben Stone of the Station North Arts & Entertainment organization to procure additional funding, including a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. A street artist who rarely asked for permission found himself arranging permits and right-of-entry.
“That’s been a big question: ‘Hey, is this selling out, what’s going on?’ ” he said. “I’m just all about producing artwork publicly and efficiently and sensitively.”
Efficiently: Offering 24 of his favorite artists a wall (and a stipend) and telling them to do whatever they wanted with it, with minimal community input.
“I invited artists that were mostly regarding their craft and their ability to produce well-rendered works, not so much conceptually driven, but more driven by beauty,” he said. “It was important for me as the first time to not go too crazy, to keep it really chill, to try to keep it in a place that was very approachable.”
Sensitively: Gently encouraging those artists, even if they came from elsewhere, to incorporate Baltimore into their work. Many took his advice, whether in Specter’s consideration of the changing neighborhood, or a painting of a burning city being quenched by “mystical water” by Port Townsend, Wash., artist Doodles.
The Reno artist Overunder celebrated the late Baltimore community activist Dennis Livingston, who worked for job creation and the environment. Overunder’s mural shows Livingston embracing a house in Greenmount West; he learned about Livingston from the house’s owners, who gave Open Walls permission to use their home as a canvas.
“He seemed like a person I would have loved to be around,” said Overunder. “He’s a person I’m inspired to be more like.”
When Overunder was painting the mural, he said, the entire block turned into a street party, with kids and families offering suggestions.
“Baltimore was such a loving city,” he said. “I had so many people walking by, and a lot of feedback and interaction, and I was able to play off of them as they play off of me. There’s all sorts of names in [the mural], and a lot of that is Dennis’s life, but also kids being like, ‘Put my name up there! Draw a picture of a dog and a cat!’ ”
It’s not the only block party that’s resulted from Open Walls. To welcome artists coming from as far away as Italy, Ukraine and Argentina, Gaia has been throwing parties, so many parties. The project’s launch party, by his description, was a complete success:
“It was a [expletive] amazing party. We had an after-party at this place called BrickHaus and that got shut down after an hour . . . Then I walked to my house, and there were like 50 people outside going ape[expletive], then we had a great dance party until like 4 in the morning at my spot, and this [expletive] girl who I’ve seen perform before who’s got this androgynous vibe to her, was just like, ‘I’ve got my equipment, can I do a set?’ And I was like [expletive] yeah. So she just rapped and did some ill [expletive],” he said. “It was literally incredible. She was so dope.”
Some of the visiting artists have been staying with Gaia in his studio-cum-apartment, a shared space on the top floor of an old warehouse near the City Arts building in Greenmont West— paint-covered, smoke-infused and full of empty Chinese takeout cartons.
In addition to the murals, some of the artists would go out to tag the city with temporary, but often not legal, wheatpastes. And Gaia reported that at least two artists, Sten and Lex from Italy, planned to take home a Baltimore souvenir: They adopted a pit bull.
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The Open Walls murals can be found on abandoned properties and occupied homes and businesses. As the artists leave their handprint on the city — whether it takes the form of a giant bird, a portrait of a neighborhood kid, or a psychedelic pattern – they’re making the neighborhood’s residents and its advocates contemplate the future of Station North.
“Gentrification in Baltimore is very different from D.C.,” said Ben Stone, director of Station North Arts & Entertainment District. “In D.C., people talk about being gentrified out of D.C. as a whole except for Anacostia. In Baltimore, if one neighborhood gets gentrified, like the waterfront, which is very gentrified, the next neighborhood over might not be. People rarely get gentrified out of Baltimore as a whole.”
“Things happen slower here. Because of the slower pace, it allows for mixing,” said Gaia.
There have been few quibbles over the project, despite its high visibility, Stone and Gaia report. “We’re providing world-class, essentially free murals,” said Gaia. “So it should be a no-brainer.”
Within the art community, Gaia said, there was grousing over his decision to select street artists over graffiti artists, the difference between the two being that street artists adopt a more fine-art, painterly style.
Gaia also recognizes that other artists might eventually paint over the murals that his artists have created — something that’s hard for a street artist, whose work is often layered upon others’ work in high-visibility spots, to get riled up over.
“I hope that it sparks respectful street art throughout Baltimore city,” he said. “The city is right for it, and it’s extremely receptive. I’ve never once been arrested in Baltimore, and I’ve talked to undercover cops . . . I come from a background of doing illegal work, and I want to stand by that position, not because I think one or the other is better, but I think it’s possible to remove the taboo nature of that illegal effect. I’m trying to do something generative and positive, not something against the system and destructive. Which some graffiti is, and some isn’t, as well.”
Stone and Gaia think that Open Walls will change Station North, but not in the way that the typical story goes. The murals might be followed by new residents and arts amenities, but if the Whole Foods foretold in Specter’s mural doesn’t come with it, that’s perfectly okay. The new residents don’t have to be rich. They just have to enjoy living, working and hanging out in a neighborhood that’s colorful.
“There’s always a balance between having that building be occupied, and having it rehabbed with granite counters,” said Stone. “I don’t think any of us are so naive to think that 23 murals will change the neighborhood overnight.”