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.