The street artist Gaia describes himself as “a skinny white kid from the Upper East Side of New York” without apparent legitimate street cred — a biography that seems incongruous with the art he tags on urban landscapes.
“So many people want to create this bad-a-- identity,” says the artist, whose work has been exhibited in major art galleries and can now be seen in his first museum installation, at the Baltimore Museum of Art. “They want to hear you slept on the street. They want the vulgar language and lifestyle. They want to take a photo of you with a mask on. They want you in street art videos with intense music and shots of police cars passing.”
The artist says he has always been honest about where he grew up. “That’s why I have UES [Upper East Side] tattooed on my wrist,” he says. “No one wants to admit they are from the Upper East Side. But it’s better to be grateful for what you have.
In some of the neighborhoods where Gaia works, it can be “weird to be a white kid from the Upper East Side.” But at the same time, he says he connects with the residents in those communities on many different levels.
Gaia, who studied sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, lives in Brooklyn and in Baltimore. He chooses to paint under the name of the Greek earth goddess partly because he identifies with the “Gaia hypothesis” formulated by scientist James Lovelock, which theorizes that Earth is an organism infected with people. “It’s almost as if we are like a big cold,” Gaia says. “The humans are the disease.”
In his art, which has an end-of-the-world aura, Gaia confronts issues of environmental degradation, gentrification, immigration, segregation and urban development. He is well known for his black-and-white portraits of city planners, rich men, politicians who changed cities, and of humans morphing into animals.
Gaia’s work has been commissioned and pasted in cities including Buenos Aires, Seoul, London and Amsterdam. In Baltimore, the artist has drawn attention for his murals of a leather-covered rooster holding the head of John the Baptist, and for donating 100 signed limited-edition prints of his work “The Raven (Forevermore)” to the Edgar Allan Poe House, which had lost its funding from the city.
The installation at the BMA features two works pasted on walls in the newly renovated contemporary wing. One piece features portraits of 11 men and women from the nearby Remington neighborhood, their faces appearing to float on a linoleum block print background of Baltimore rowhouses — connected and at the same time disconnected from the setting.
On an opposite wall is a portrait of a woman bathed in an orange glow, holding a ripe mango, which was inspired by Gauguin’s painting “Woman With a Mango.”
“Gaia was interested in the idea that Gauguin was a French artist who traveled to Tahiti and produced a body of work about a culture that wasn’t his own. And lived in a culture that wasn’t really his own,” says Kristen Hileman, the museum’s curator of contemporary art. “I think Gaia has self-awareness to know that is part of his role as an artist.”
Hileman says the museum sought to commission pieces by Gaia because of his mission to connect with people in urban landscapes, his artistic skills and the social and political messages in his work.
“This is an artist who wasn’t just tagging things and doing a quick hit in an urban site,” Hileman says. “This is a person engaged with the health of the city as an ecosystem and wanting to see the abandoned buildings of Baltimore used for a better purpose than they were.”
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.