Greenmount West residents Samuel Stewart and Toni Noble smoke cigarettes and chat at the foot of a giant mural on the corner of Lafayette Avenue and Barclay Street on a recent afternoon. "I notice something new every day," Noble says, gazing up. Painted this spring by Nevada street artist Overunder, the mural depicts neighborhood artist and activist Dennis Livingston, who died last year. Livingston appears to embrace the building from behind, his lean, colorful hands a full story tall. "He used to ride around here on a bicycle," says Stewart, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 50 years. "He was everywhere."
Stewart and Noble offer to give a City Paper reporter an impromptu tour of other new murals in the vicinity, all part of Open Walls Baltimore, a project managed by the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. "They're trying to bring the neighborhood back," Noble says. She rounds a corner onto a skinny stretch of Latrobe Street and points up. "Isn't that nice?" This mural, a striking black-and-white stencil-like painting by New York artist Chris Stain, is of a boy on a bike backed by an urban scene not unlike the one the building occupies. A water tower in the painting mirrors a real one visible several blocks south.
Open Walls Baltimore is the brainchild of Station North, PNC Bank, and, most directly, a local street artist who goes by the name Gaia—he of the black-and-white wheatpaste animals, visible on vacant buildings all over the city. Once completed in late May, the project will include more than 20 murals, scattered throughout the arts and entertainment district. It comes with the blessing of the city and was officially launched with great fanfare in March by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake herself.
Murals have long been used to try and perk up struggling neighborhoods, often with little effect, and now can be as indicative of urban decay—in Baltimore as well as other cities—as the vacant lots they tend to abut. As Station North Executive Director Ben Stone puts it, "You don't see murals in Roland Park." The organizers of Open Walls have attempted to combat this stigma by locating the murals on occupied buildings as well as vacants. The artists weren't given any thematic template to follow—though none have an overtly political message—and these are no rank amateurs. Many have international stature, at least in the underground world of street art; some are local but others hail from as far away as South Africa, Portugal, and Argentina.
"[Open Walls] totally began like a romantic comedy," says Gaia, the project's curator. The twentysomething artist, who had been plastering his work illegally on vacant properties in the city for several years, last year allowed the Edgar Allan Poe House to sell a raven print of his to raise money for the museum. Through that project and an art show he participated in at the Maryland Institute College of Art, he got to know Will Backstrom, who works in community development for PNC Bank. (Backstrom says he'd been intrigued by Gaia's street art before he ever met the artist.) "And he was like, 'Hey, this is so cool! Is this your work? And have you seen Exit Through the Gift Shop [a 2010 film about street artists, directed by the elusive Banksy]?'" Gaia recounts. "And I was like, 'Of course, I mean, I know most of them.'" Backstrom says he'd heard of large mural projects as revitalization strategies in other cities, such as Miami, and wondered what it would take to do something similar in Baltimore. After further discussions with Gaia and with Station North, which was in the middle of applying for an Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the project began to come together. Station North's grant included the monthly Final Fridays program and a host of other proposals. It included a placeholder that specified "activating vacant spaces and vacant buildings in Station North," according to Stone. The first conversation about making that placeholder the mural project happened last spring, and from there the process moved quickly. Both the NEA and PNC agreed to fund the project, and by February, Gaia himself was painting the first of the murals, a giant hand cradling a pigeon at the corner of North Avenue and Charles Street.
Not all residents have responded as positively as Stewart and Noble, the pair this reporter encountered in Greenmount West. Open Walls organizers say they have heard complaints from some residents who wish they'd been more involved in the process of choosing the artists and the art. But Stewart and Noble's pride about the new murals in their neighborhood is precisely what organizers hope will be the norm, and constitutes one of Station North's goals for the project.
Another is making the arts district more visible as such. The project, which has a budget of about $100,000, has faced some criticism from those who feel the money could have been better spent. "Why not use this money to pay local artist [sic] to teach art in the woefully underfunded public schools?" one commenter wrote in response to an article about Open Walls at grist.org, voicing a common complaint. Stone sighs when he hears criticism like this. "Yes, these murals are being painted—and people always notice murals being painted because they're big and bright and happening outdoors—but behind the scenes there's a million things being worked on," he says. "We just funded a children's drawing program in Greenmount West but no one in San Francisco is flying in to write a story about it." Stone points out that the murals are a comparatively cheap way to draw attention to the city and the district. "There's millions of dollars of work going on to open up the Chesapeake, the new restaurant down the street [at the corner of Lanvale and Charles streets], and no one's really talking about that," he says. "And then someone paints a mural and you spend $1,000—even less in some cases—and it gets international press."
For PNC, which is funding the project to the tune of $60,000, the motivation is similar. "I wanted to use this as a vehicle to invite people to come to a neighborhood they maybe wouldn't set foot in otherwise," Backstrom says. "It's a revitalization strategy but by no means is it a gentrification strategy. It's to bring new people, new investors, to a place. . . with the long-term goal of making it a functioning, normal, multicultural, diverse-from-an-income-point-of-view neighborhood."
The pieces represent a staggering variety of styles, from abstract to figurative to a combination of both, and techniques, from bas-relief to wheatpaste posters to spray paint. There are what Stone calls the "gateway murals," which include Baltimore-born artist Maya Hayuk's dazzling psychedelic wall across from the Charles Theatre. "When you get off the train at Penn Station, you look up and you see this big bright mural," Stone says. Other murals, especially those in Greenmount West, are more site-specific, referencing characters or themes from the neighborhood. Overunder's painting of activist Dennis Livingston is one example, as is a wheatpaste piece by an Arizona artist known as Jetsonorama. It depicts a neighborhood resident named Tony, known for the pigeons that he keeps. Many of the murals lie along unexpected, little-visited streets. "In my mind it would be great if in three years, someone said, 'Oh yeah, I've seen all the Open Walls,'" Stone says, "and then they walk through and say, 'Oh wow! There's another one I never noticed.'"
It is unlikely the project would have attracted the caliber of artist that it has if it weren't for Gaia's connections in the international world of street art. "Considering the budget, this is really more of a family situation," he says. While he has enjoyed bringing in his artist friends from all over the world and is proud of the "museum for street art" he has helped create, Gaia admits to having qualms about the project as a whole. "Obviously we're being utilized by the PNC Foundation as a reinvestment strategy," he says. Gaia worries that the murals could help draw the kind of investment that might make the neighborhood unaffordable for longtime low-income residents as well as artists like those who inhabit the Copy Cat Building on Guilford Avenue. "If any displacement occurs, I'm absolutely complicit," he says. But he says he seeks a "creative means to deal with the dereliction" in the city, and sees Open Walls as a good experiment in that vein. "There aren't too many reinvestment projects that have been very successful in maintaining the original core group of people, and I'm not gonna solve that with this mural project," he says. "But this is an attempt at learning the process and I think it's very important for Baltimore."
Open Walls will host a free Grand Finale party on May 25 from 5-9 p.m. at East oliver and Barclay Streets. The event will include performances by Dan Deacon, Scottie B, and Mark Brown, with live body casting by artist John Ahearn. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will attend and food and drinks will be available.