Hidden behind a janitorial supply store in North Baltimore is an L-shaped alley drenched in colors. Brick walls rise with swollen, bubble letters. A yellow gumshoe giraffe peers under a fedora. A row of penguins are cursing.
"It's amazing how many people in the city have never been here," Melissa Goldmeier, an attorney for Howard County government and an amateur photographer, said as she regarded the rainbow walls of Graffiti Alley. "There are some real, true artists here."
A crowd of photographers and painters lingered Sunday morning within this oasis of Baltimore street art, a highlight on a new walking tour of the city's public art. Here artists have legally spray-painted for years in an ever-changing collage of shapes and colors. On Sunday, a painted buxom woman lounged on a garage door. The word "blue" appeared in purple. A cubist face hinted at Pablo Picasso.
"It's free and open to anybody and everybody," said Michael Owen, a muralist from Highlandtown. "It's constantly evolving."
Owen led the tour through the Charles Village and Station North neighborhoods that have emerged as homes to creative people, those drawn by the street art and affordable rents. Once plagued by crime and blight, the neighborhoods were designated in 2002 as the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. State and city leaders have designated two other arts districts: one in Highlandtown, another around the Bromo Seltzer Tower.
"This has really popped off to be the most lively and colorful of the three arts districts in Baltimore," Owen told the crowd. "There are a ton of murals here."
Owen, 34, grew up in Florida and came to Baltimore for art school. He gained widespread attention for his ambitious Baltimore Love Project — murals painted across the city that showed silhouetted hands spelling "L-O-V-E." He began in 2008 with murals in Mount Washington and Carroll Park. He painted 19 before finishing about five years ago with a mural in Belvedere Square.
Owen was recruited to lead the art tour planned by Honeygrow, a chain of casual stir-fry and salad restaurants with stores in Baltimore. Sunday brought the first free tour, though organizers intend to announce more dates on The Bmore Creatives Facebook page.
"I really appreciate you coming out early," said Kyle Huff of Honeygrow. "I know there were several dance parties last night."
He welcomed about two dozen people at the tour's start. The group swelled to nearly 50 people by the end.
"Basically, it's a bunch of creatives going on a walk," Huff said.
They carried vintage cameras and wore ripped jeans. There was Celene Monroe, of Baltimore, who works as a marketing manager and sells artwork made from wood, nails and colored string. There was Jackie Hazlett, who works in digital production for television channels, and finds it meditative to paint yoga poses.
Austin Coye, an oncology researcher at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, was walking to church Sunday when she was swept up in the enthusiasm and tagged along. She marveled at the colors in Graffiti Alley.
"My nonna would say, 'Oh, those hoodlums,'" she said. "But in the context of an art walk, it's surprisingly beautiful."
They began outside a treatment house for addicts in Charles Village, where five years ago Owen painted a gray silhouette of a man keeled over, arm outstretched, with shoots sprouting from his fingertips: a message of renewal and rebirth in sobriety.
"Something beautiful can come out of decay," he told the crowd.
They continued on about a mile, searching for the artwork that has quietly blossomed beside the concrete lots, vacant houses and liquor stores.
"You find the most lovely things in the broken," Coye said.
Behind weeds and trash bags, a huge brown elephant marched before a steel-blue mountainside on North Charles Street. Jessica Bradley rose on her tiptoes to pet the trunk. Her boyfriend took the photo. She sells solar panels, paints abstracts, and came Sunday to expand her Instagram collection.
Owen stopped the crowd on East Lanvale Street, where he began another project to paint murals that spell "explore." With permission, he painted on an East Lanvale Street building a green-and-blue figure swimming out of the brick to form an "e."
He painted the other letters into murals between Hampden and Biddle Street, all except the "o." He wants to paint a nude woman emerging from an oval flower for "o."
"I keep getting no's from wall owners," he said.