Nether‘s latest mural is a tribute to bearing witness. SATYAGRAHA was painted in Baltimore as part of the Baltimore Rising exhibition at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The mural highlights Kevin Moore and Ramsey Orta, who each witnessed police murdering a black man and decided to speak out. Moore filmed Freddie Gray’s arrest, and Orta filmed Eric Garner’s murder. Both have since faced intense police harassment.
Kevin Moore speaks a bit about that harassment, as well as how to interact with police, in this video:
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.
Earlier this year, a group of artists (led by Nether) working under the Wall Hunters banner teamed up Carol Ott of Baltimore Slumlord Watch for the Slumlord Project, an effort to draw attention to “dilapidated vacant houses” in Baltimore that the project organizers determined were owned by peopled they considered “negligent property owners.” One of those property owners, Stanley Rochkind, is now suing Ott through two of the shell companies through which Rochkind owns property. The lawsuits demand that Ott remove two murals from buildings that were painted by the Wall Hunters artists. The lawsuits are particularly ironic because Rochkind initially claimed not to own these buildings and the Wall Hunters artists painted these buildings specifically because Rochkind has not bothered to maintain them.
So… Rochkind is suing for “repairs,” on dilapidated buildings that he has not bothered to actually repair in any way and which, in an effort to discredit the Wall Hunters, he initially claimed not to own. Sounds like a stand-up guy.
Editor’s note: I tried to write about this fascinating project that just finished up in Baltimore, but for some reason I was unable. So, instead, I asked Nether to write about the project for Vandalog. Nether was one of the co-organizers, so instead of my guesswork and thoughts based on a few articles I had read, now we have a first-hand account of one of the more daring street art projects in recent memory: Wall Hunters’ “Slumlord Project”. – RJ Rushmore
Wall Hunters‘ “Slumlord Project” was a project that installed 17 pieces on dilapidated vacant houses that are owned by people we consider to be negligent property owners. The project was a collaborative venture between the newly-minted street artists’ nonprofit, Wall Hunters, and Slumlord Watch, a local blog that documents the city’s shameful and shockingly large stock of uninhabitable vacant homes. QR codes and text descriptions were pasted alongside the art. A cell phone app scan of these instantly unveiled ownership information on the guilty landowner by linking to the Baltimore Slumlord Watch website. The artists’ ephemeral work and the community reaction to it was recorded for a documentary being produced by the project’s third partners, filmmakers Tarek Turkey and Julia Pitch. The project’s goal was to catalyze a larger conversation on Baltimore’s vacancy issue–a conversation that includes the normally muted voices of those who live in the targeted neighborhoods, as well as politicians and the developers whose phone calls get answered by city hall.
The idea for the project was born about a year ago. At that time I was putting up wheatpastes on dilapidated, vacant houses. As I was researching specific properties I was hitting, I regularly came across the Baltimore Slumlord Watch blog run by the housing activist Carol Ott. Slumlord Watch is basically Wiki-leaks for Baltimore’s underfunded housing authority. As blog posts make clear, many of the blighted houses are owned by entities with the means to fix their crumbling properties–slumlords who blithely ignore the cost of their neglect on city communities. Since much of my work uses images to deal with the vacancy problem and Carol was battling the same issue, we decided to meet and try to do something that joined street art with housing activism. I began driving her around while she catalogued vacants and researched ownership, and I wheatpasted.
One of the most pivotal aspects of street art is the democratization of public space. Whether people choose to engage or not, graffiti and street art are a way of reminding the everyday pedestrian that they have the power to manipulate their environment (sometimes at a price). Many residents of Balitmore have had to accept dilapidated neighborhoods as their everyday quality of life. The structures around them are literally falling apart due to neglect from city government property owners and has resulted in a massive property-vacancy problem. If Broken Window Theory has anything to do with it, that “If the city doesn’t care, why should I?” mentality has fostered one of the highest crime rates for any city in the country.
What does street art have to do with Baltimore’s structural issues and decline in living standards? Over a dozen street artists have taken on the task of bringing attention to these issues in a grassroots effort, through installing large pieces on some of the city’s dilapidated, vacant houses. Nether, Gaia, LNY, Noh J Coely, Mata Ruda, Nanook, Harlequinade and others have joined their forces as a non-profit organization called Wall Hunters have teamed up with Baltimore Slumlord Watch to put up large-scale murals on these eye-sore structures with QR codes alongside which informs viewers of who owns the vacant property. Simultaneously, they are creating a documentary with Nether and Carol Ott at the forefront, showing this massive issue corroding Baltimore and their relatively small effort to combat it. They’ve received a bit of funding to make their project possible but not enough, so they’ve created this Indiegogo campaign to bring it to fruition.
I love the way Nether’s graceful portraits of everyday folks — pasted onto abandoned and decaying spaces in his native Baltimore — interact with their surroundings. His current exhibit Crumbling Cities at Weldon Arts provides a wonderful glimpse into the world that Nether has created in Baltimore and in his travels. Here are a few more images:
The exhibit continues weekends through Saturday, February 16th at 181 Irving Avenue in Bushwick.
A note from RJ: The following is a guest post by Washington DC’s iwillnot.
Last week I went up to Baltimore to check in with Gaia and see how the walls were coming along for Open Walls Baltimore. While there, I wanted to meet up with a Baltimore artist that I have been following for quite some time now: Nether.
It just so happened I met with him at a time when he was receiving a lot of local press and notoriety for his depiction of an ominous hooded figure in tribute to Trayvon Martin. Placed in desolate and sometimes eerily empty spots, the 7 foot tall by 10 feet wide image is haunting.
Extremely well versed in the local graffiti and street art scene, Nether describes his own work as “an urban art campaign that hopes to impact and beautify BMORE’s bleakness through vibrant street art with the hopes of evoking public discussion.” His images bring to mind the decomposition of society, urban decay, and toxicity of modern life.
His large scale wheat paste images can be found between all of the major walls of OWB. Frankly, it is very difficult NOT to encounter one of his pieces while in the arts district. Their size and excellent placement make them impossible to miss.
I encourage all who are visiting OWB to walk from wall to wall. Along the way, there are some great pieces from local artists. When I asked Gaia, “Okay, who are the local guys? Who is putting stuff up?” He told me “Nobody man, it’s just me Nether and Mata Ruda basically.”
While that is not necessarily the case, especially during Open Walls Baltimore (there are several Overunders throughout the neighborhood). They are definitely making a huge impact on an otherwise bleak urban landscape.
Whats next for Nether? He says, “The Trayvon piece is the first of a larger series that will deal with the stories of ordinary black youth in a progressive manner…The aim of this series is to highlight and iconisize these character’s stories… I think promoting these stories could really inspire others, especially at risk youth.”