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Passion project: Bringing art, love to the streets of Baltimore

6:10 a.m. Monday.

The wall is a patchwork of dingy color and rough repair jobs, with crackling cement etching across its bottom half and snaking up like a jagged scar.

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Across the street here in Highlandtown is a smattering of businesses — the Value Village, a medical supply store. Some buildings are empty, boarded up. Here, art will happen.

People will soon stop and look at this place they never paid much attention to before. And it all starts with a few scrapings.

Scott Burkholder chips at the wall, and loose paint speckles the ground. It’s a chilly late April Monday morning. Eastern Avenue, near the Conkling Street intersection, is quiet, save for intermittent ATM beeps at the Bank of America Building mere feet away.

Michael Owen arrives and looks at the wall. He takes out a white paper from his back pocket, on which he’s etched human hands spelling out L-O-V-E. Burkholder struggles to scrape off old paint as the sun just begins to rise.

“There’s no perfect wall out there, you know?” Owen says, as he borrows Burk-holder’s red sweatshirt. “You have to adapt. You just start from the bottom and work your way up.”

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This wall is the third mural for the Baltimore Love Project, an urban public art plan that Owen, the project's artist, and Burkholder, the project's executive director, hope to carry out in 20 spots across the city. Each mural will be alike — the same four large hands, painted black, spelling out LOVE. 

Two murals have been completed so far — next to a creek in Mount Washington and on the Gwynns Falls Trail. Eventually, Baltimore Love Project murals won't just decorate idyllic trails, but will appear on walls in Pigtown and downtown, in Hollins Market and Broadway East. The pair plan to work on a fourth mural at the Sowebo Arts Festival at the end of the month.

"I don't have this grand idea that Baltimore will be transformed," said Owen, 27. "As I say on our website, I hope the walls go up and a guy sees it on his way home from work and picks up flowers for his girlfriend. Or that a mom pushing a kid in a stroller ... passes these and for one night doesn't abuse her kids."

Owen and Burkholder, who used to work together at Burkholder's interior paint business, won't make a lot of money from the project, but it is their primary focus. Each mural averages $3,000-$5,000 for donors to fund. Over the course of 20 murals — however long that takes — Owen likely will make $40,000; Burkholder, $20,000.

Owen doesn't have an idealistic notion that "Love" is the answer. But he believes in its power. "I'm personally finding that loving people the best you can is the most effective way to change things for good."

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8:17 a.m. Monday. Baltimore Love Project murals begin slowly. Burkholder, 30, works with Owen to map out a grid of 4-by-4-feet squares that together will form the mural.

Burkholder, the planner of the two, is worried the measurements won't show up well on the wall. One line off measurement and that's what people will notice, Owen says.

For a few hours they measure and create grids — they must quit before the bank opens at 9 a.m. "This is pissing me off," Burkholder says when a chalk line appears too faint. "I can see it," Owen says.

Just before 9 a.m., near the ATM, a man turns his back and begins peeing.

He zips up, ponders the wall for a moment and walks away.

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"I really wish I had a magical moment where it all came together," said Owen. The 2004 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art has always just liked to draw hands.

Check out the mural at the Giant in Waverly or the quarter-mile underpass through Highlandtown to Greektown — that's Owen. "[Hands] show action without getting too personal," said Owen. "The details are blacked out, so it can be a guy, a girl, a kid, a 50-year-old man, a woman."

He came up with the "LOVE" design two years ago, when he was also contracted by the city to do a mural in the Gwynns Falls Trail. But Owen wanted to spread the love beyond the shade of forest trees.

"I've lived in half a dozen neighborhoods in the city," said Owen, who is moving to Highlandtown from Fells Point with his wife, Shelley, and 4-year-old son, Harper.

"I know how it works — the nice areas of town get the best artwork. Going down any street in the city, you find these beautiful walls. Why not art on these walls, too?"

Getting permission to paint on city walls is a long process — it can take a year and a half, as the Highlandtown wall took — involving multiple meetings between Burkholder and land owners and property managers. Mirza Yalcin, who owns the Highlandtown building, had not seen the benefit of turning his wall over. But his son, an urban design major at New York University, told him otherwise.

 "He convinced me it will be good for the city," Yalcin said.

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5:30 p.m. Monday. The hands are mapped out, each letter ready to be filled in. Owen takes out the now well-folded-over original sketch, looks at it, looks up at the wall and looks down at the paper again.

"I'm freaked out by the 'E'," he says, and he walks over to confer with Burkholder. An orange crayon is used to go over the letters' outlines. 

Joe Schulz, a developer who renovates homes in the area, drops by to say hello. He's the guy who handed Owen and

Burkholder $5,000 to completely fund the Highlandtown wall. "It's about being part of something good," Schulz says. "Just look at the message — it's contagious."

One blanket donation from a rich city organization could have funded the entire project. Instead, the two wanted each mural to be sponsored individually, by a group or person within each neighborhood.

"At the end of the day, it won't belong to the Abell Foundation or Baltimore City government. It belongs to people like Joe who invigorate Main Street," Owen says.

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6:42 p.m. Monday. "Oh, my god! You're the Baltimore Love Project guys!"

It's near the end of the first working day on the mural, and Jackie Bello — after parking her car and opening her trunk — runs over. She lives just a few blocks away.

"This is awesome," she says, her mouth open as she looks up at the mural. "I love it."

Bello, 24, who moved to Baltimore from New Jersey in August to begin a Teach for America stint, says the Love Project is something that can inspire her students. "I just think it's a great thing," she says, still scanning the mural. "I'm glad it's here."

She walks away, but turns back momentarily and says, laughing, "Look! I left my trunk open to run over here."

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6:53 p.m. Tuesday. There's still a lot of painting to do when Tuesday morning comes, and the pair has promised to complete it by 8 p.m.

Burkholder dips his roller in black paint and fills in the larger sections. Owen paints in the more detailed parts — the tips of fingers, and the hardest part, the tiny circle formed by the 'O.' "It's funny," says Burkholder. "His fine-artist's tool is a mini-roller."

After a few hours, there's a small crowd gathered to watch the end of the work. Jae David Jin, the project's public relations director, is here now, busy videotaping the progress to post on the project's Facebook page. Jin's the third man in this small operation, a buddy of both Owen and Burkholder; they all work together to plan events and secure sites. "You're almost there," Jin calls out with an excited smile. By 7:30 p.m., there's just a square left to paint. Owen steps up on the ladder, fills it in. There's clapping from the small crowd of friends.

There's no embrace between Owen and Burkholder, who both have paint speckled on their front teeth. Their three ladders are packed away into a truck. Then they drive away.

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When Owen and Burkholder and their spectators leave, children play in a small fenced-in playground behind Yalcin's shop. Men across the street sit and chat in front of Manuel's Style, a salon. Value Village locks up.

Cars and pedestrians pass by. Not every driver slows down, but everyone walking by does. The ATM beeps. The children playing yell that they've seen a rat.

This is still Highlandtown. Now it just has a bit more love.

Jordan Bartel is assistant editor at b. Follow him on Twitter, @jordanbartel.

Photos by Brian Krista, b

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