Jason Curtis rides a Segway through Mount Vernon with Baltimore City police officers on a Friday night. Curtis is usually chipper, a master of vibrancy. He is the head of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association and challenged Carl Stokes for the 12th District City Council seat in the last election, when he managed to muster 8 percent of the vote.
By day, Curtis, who has been named Hotelier of the Year by the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association, runs the newly reopened Brookshire Suites hotel in the Inner Harbor. But he wants it to feel like Station North.
"Our ownership group had an idea of trying to do something very fun and different, [with an] eclectic atmosphere like the Station North Arts District-type of thing," he says of the Lombard Street hotel, which sports a big photograph of Frank Zappa behind the front desk, while muzak plays on the stereo. According to Curtis, Modus Hotels, which owns the property, and the Seattle design firm Dawson Design Associates decided that the Brookshire Suites would be an "urban playground."
Sure enough, on the hotel's website, all the key words are there: "lifestyle," "urban," "vibrant," "eclectic," and "experience." If only these words, from the short introductory paragraph, spelled some nice acronym like "yuppie" (the best I can get is "luvee.").
Vibrancy does not mean one of those vibrating beds, I was disappointed to discover. Rather, as Thomas Frank wrote in The Baffler a couple years ago, it is an ineffable but ultimately desirable characteristic: "A city isn't successful—isn't even a city, really—unless it can lay claim to being 'vibrant.' Vibrancy is so universally desirable, so totemic in its powers, that even though we aren't sure what the word means, we know the quality it designates must be cultivated. The vibrant, we believe, is what makes certain cities flourish."
It is the dream of Florida—not the state, but Richard Florida, the theorist behind the optimistic ideas of the "creative class."
Compare this with the mayor's vision for Baltimore. At the ribbon-cutting for the Station North Chicken Box, she said, "The vibrancy we see in Station North is what we need in order to grow Baltimore by 10,000 families over the next decade." In the same speech, the mayor talked about our "uniqueness and creativity and quirkiness."
So is Brookshire Suites, with its canned version of "Baltimore art," what these people mean when they talk about vibrant visions for Station North?
Actually, the whole idea-complex of vibrancy and creativity and quirkiness means that you're not really supposed to ask questions like that. It's better for the city if you just parrot the words in the press release, as The Sun did when it wrote about the hotel's "gritty, cool makeover."
Even grittier and cooler than the chain-link fence that decorates the lobby or the picture of Counting Crows' Adam Duritz (born in Baltimore!), which hangs on the fence, is the graffiti on the wall above the IKEA-like RedBAR and above the desk. Fuck yes, the hotel has graffiti! Honey, can you believe it? And it's not even the gross kind scrawled in the bathroom.
"When we were doing the whole lobby concept, we decided we really wanted it to be a whole urban feel," says Curtis. "And, of course, Baltimore has tons of graffiti artists."
So Curtis reached out to Michael Owen, best known for the Baltimore Love Project, who is, by his own admission, not a graffiti artist. By phone from L.A., Owen told City Paper, "I don't usually consider myself a graffiti writer, but it sounded like they were looking for something a little more designed and painted from that."
"Of course, we didn't want anything that was going to be offensive or too graphic," Curtis says of choosing Owen, "but something that was really artistic and really good to look at."
Owen delivered; his Baltimore Love Project is now luvee all the way. Walking tours to the various murals in which shadowed hands spell out the word "love" are part of the hotel's "Fall in Love Baltimore" package, which starts at $138 and includes, in addition to your hotel stay, a map of locations.
Mark Rothko may have struggled with the idea of doing paintings for the Four Seasons in New York (and ultimately withdrew from the project, as dramatized in Red last year at the Everyman Theatre), but Michael Owen rocked it. He rose to the challenge. There was no conflict, only compromise.
"There was a lot of back and forth because, again, I'm not a graffiti writer and so the work that they wanted, it took a while to get to the final product," he says. "Just because I'm not a graffiti writer, I felt like I was [still] capable of being able to collect the information from a design standpoint and kind of compose the imagery together to create what they are looking for."
But Owen is still down with the street scene. "I understand why people write [graffiti]," Owen says. "I get it. You get all the positives in the moment and you have no control afterwards. But if you go in the community and work with corporations and people who are asking you for work, you can start a dialogue, and by starting a dialogue you avoid apathy."
So, Owen says, he went out to "look at and reference hand styles and tags around town that I think kind of represent the Baltimore scene, not the Detroit scene, not the New York graffiti scene, not the Philly scene, but some of the actual writers here in Baltimore." When asked if there were specific writers he wanted to credit, Owen says "not specifically" but acknowledges finding a couple younger writers who are in college and having them work up some styles which he used.
When asked if it made him uncomfortable to appropriate imagery or styles without giving credit, Owen responds that "authenticity doesn't pay for my child support or my groceries. Street cred is not a priority for me. . . . Baltimore is, you know, small, and I think that that conversation right there of losing credibility by being paid for your work or by appropriating imagery is just kind of tired. I'm not really trying to worry so hard about that, and I don't know if young kids should either."
Perhaps the young kids don't worry about selling out. None of the kids in the Frontline video "Generation Like" even knew what the phrase "selling out" means. But you know who else doesn't care if you appropriate images from someone without giving them credit? Corporations like Modus Hotels. They can buy credibility from an artist like Owen, without caring where it leaves him in the long run. They don't care about him or his future—and it's really not their job to.
It's not that artists shouldn't make money; it is that they shouldn't make money doing stupid shit. Owen's murals are intended as marketing and are really no different than the yellow strips of fake graffiti in the rooms or the faux-exposed brick on the hotel's sign.
Mera Rubell, the mega-collector and cap-wearing hotel mogul who is re-opening the Lord Baltimore Hotel, has seemingly taken exactly the opposite approach. Instead of using the city's arts community to bolster her own image, Rubell has lent her enormous influence and credibility to the arts scene, first visiting the studios of 37 local artists and then curating the show Baltimore Artists+WPA+Mera Rubell=LOVE, which opened in New York earlier this year. The same works, by 25 Baltimore artists, are now at Artisphere in Arlington, Va. through March 21 and will be part of the SELECT art auction gala there on March 22.
That's the kind of Love we can get behind. Not that the Brookshire is an entirely unpleasant place. It is vibrant. They serve local beer and wine and have Berger cookies in the gift shop. They are helping Maryland Art Place house a number of international artists, and Michael Owen is also going to paint the parking garage.