Gaia — a young artist who's the brains behind a massive mural project around Baltimore's Station North neighborhood — likes to say the work isn't a traditional political statement. Yet listen to him talk, and he sounds a little bit like a community organizer with an awful lot of spray paint.
"What were doing here is creating a social bridge, connecting different socioeconomic backgrounds," Gaia said of the more than 20 murals and sculpture pieces scattered through the arts district and the nearby Greenmount West neighborhood. "I want people to cross that divide that often exists in Baltimore."
Since early February, the 23-year-old Maryland Institute College of Art graduate has been living and breathing Open Walls Baltimore, a series of public art projects covering everything from an abandoned fried-chicken restaurant to a bustling parking garage to the sides of modest East Baltimore row homes.
This weekend, some of the mural painters were still atop basket cranes, putting the finishing touches on their brick canvases as the artists and the community celebrated the end of the project with a block party complete with live music and, of course, more art.
As an art student, Gaia made a name for himself in Baltimore, painting haunting and surreal images on many of Baltimore's vacant properties — often under the cover of darkness and without permission. His professional name, Gaia, stemmed from his need to remain anonymous.
But this time around, Gaia's work is far from underground. Open Walls has the cooperation of the city and was funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and PNC Bank. Handling the logistics and the budget, Ben Stone, the executive director of Station North Arts & Entertainment Inc., and project manager Rebecca Chan were also driving forces behind Open Walls.
"I'm not an anti-establishment kind of guy. I don't do this to stick it to the man," Gaia said. "I do this because the American real estate market as it is allows for a tremendous amount of inert space that exists while a neighborhood waits to change. In the meantime, there is a tremendous potential that's totally untapped."
With nearly $100,000 in outside funding, the Open Walls staff was able to recruit a mix of local, national and international artists, Stone said. The works have started to make Station North's gritty exteriors match its increasingly arts-focused interiors.
Baltimorean Josh Van Horne painted a giant digital or QR code, which links viewers to animation on the Internet, on a wall near the headquarters of the city school system. Portuguese artist Alexandre "Vhils" Farto carved a visage out of the brick wall along the 1500 block of Calvert Street. New Orleans-based artist Momo painted giant radials of color across a new housing complex at Oliver Street and Greenmount Avenue. And local artist Gary Kachadourian installed monochromatic sculptures of things found on a construction site on a lot at Barclay and East Lanvalle streets.
As a former administrator with the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, Kachadourian is no stranger to public art projects. He led the city's mural projects for nearly a decade but was still impressed with the Open Walls Baltimore project.
"This is certainly one of the biggest and most ambitious public painting projects in Baltimore in years," Kachadourian said. "They created a lot of work over a large area in a very short amount of time."
While the artists, their affluent friends and community came together for a boisterous block party to celebrate the Open Walls on Friday, Gaia said the project hasn't been without its detractors.
"It's been genuinely positive, but there is definitely a lot of latent fear of gentrification and displacement," he said. "But this is just one small mechanism in a giant redevelopment scheme for this neighborhood. ... I'm trying to find a balance between outreach and really good art."
Part of that balance was making art that resonated with the area, especially in the blighted Greenmount West neighborhood. Arizona painter Chip "Jetsonorama" Thomas created a giant portrait of Tony Divers, known as Mr. Tony, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood who raises pigeons. Another artist from New York, Chris Stain, stenciled a familiar urban scene of a young boy on a bike.
"I just don't want it to seem like a soft, wishy-wash mural project," Gaia said. "We have done some pretty incredible, aesthetically pleasing work, but we have also produced something that's very pertinent and specific, which always a challenge for public art."
What's next for Gaia? He's currently working on a project for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but when asked about Baltimore, he stops and thinks.
"Maybe I'll get into real estate," he said wistfully.