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.