In Baltimore, where every water is uncharted, street art has navigated its own course. What began as a covert creative expression of artistic imagination by individual street artists has matured to become an important force that binds artists and neighborhoods. Baltimore’s growing legion of street artists has piloted a course of creating art on parched streets and using it to quench neighborhoods’ thirst for something beautiful and sometimes provocative in their midst.
When I began wheatpasting, there were only three other street artists in town who regularly got their pieces up: Ways, Gaia, and Nanook. Mata Ruda began wheatpasting about the same time I did and we worked together often. Everyone used a fly-by-night installation approach, using the cover of darkness to get our work up. Unsanctioned street art was something relatively new to Baltimore and the public viewed it as a sort of furtive “where’s waldo” game. We used the element of surprise to start the conversations that our work desired.
Everything changed in 2012. Under the direction of Gaia, Open Walls Baltimore began and with it the Station North neighborhood—Baltimore’s arts district—was transformed by the presence of spectacular, large murals funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and PNC Bank. With the arrival of the street art mural circuit to a city new to street art, Baltimore discovered street art’s ability to change an urban landscape. Most works didn’t deal with Baltimore politics and social issues directly but their presence acted to educate the public about the value of this new-to-it art form in giving voice to and beautifying our town. With Open Walls, Baltimore found a place on the map in the street art world. This place was solidified after the launch of Articulate by Stefan Ways in October 2012.
As sanctioned work began appearing in Station North, so too did an increasing number of unsanctioned works show up on Baltimore’s endless supply of vacant properties in areas untouched by urban renewal plans. To the newly tuned-in international street art community, Baltimore began to be viewed as the socially-conscious street artist’s Mecca. In a city that wears its social issues on its desolate streets where roughly one out of every six houses is vacant, there is an almost endless supply of walls and contexts to till artistically. With the city’s new appreciation for street art following Open Walls, everything changed for the illegal artist; we threw off the cloak of darkness and began working in the open daylight, talking to people more, listening to community members, and finding our voices blended with theirs in drawing attention to forces preventing neighborhoods from thriving. Largely due to the connections we forged, a new niche for street art was created. Supported by city communities, we could operate unmasked and launch unsanctioned ventures like Slumlord Project, a campaign of an organization called Wall Hunters aimed at drawing attention to the neglect of vacant properties by absentee landlords by turning crumpling walls into works of art. All of a sudden we became accepted as social innovators and activists using civil disobedience to voice social outrage and demand attention rather than merely artists using aerosol and wheatpaste.
One unexpected manifestation of Baltimore’s appreciation of street art’s positive force is the number of communities that have invited us to come to their streets and paint murals—sometimes to add a point of interest to a depressed scene or to memorialize a local tragedy, and sometimes just because people thirst for art. They sanction our work even if City Hall does not, and City Hall appears not to want to interfere with our alliance, at least for the time being. Community support has also contributed to a boon of new artists popping up on Baltimore’s now vibrant street art scene. These include Pablo Machioli, Reed, and Sarah Souix, whose works have further diversified the art on Baltimore streets. Their contributions are among the below selections of 2014 unsanctioned work in our city: