This spring, birds and planes won’t be the only objects occupying space in the sky.
In Baltimore, as well as almost every major city in the world, kite flying has become a central pastime and popular festival subject — from Bondi Beach, Australia to Cleveland. Many use kites to celebrate the change of seasons and the start of warm weather. But kites can take on varied meanings from setting to setting, as cultures associate them with different symbols and purposes.
Jon Burkhardt, a veteran kite maker and treasurer of the Maryland Kite Society, said kites may have first developed in China around 2,000 B.C., though no one knows for sure. But eventually, kites evolved into military campaign accessories, thought to have been used to fly soldiers over opponents’ territory. These “man-lifting” kites remained popular through World World I, until inventors developed airplanes.
Kite flying has also developed into a competitive sport, particularly in countries like China, India and Japan. Elsewhere, kites have been incorporated into fishing, catching game, atmospheric research and science (think: Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment testing the sky’s electricity using a key attached to the bottom of the string).
In countries like Indonesia, kites represent religious gestures of gratefulness for fertility, birth and destiny, according to the American Kite Association. In Malaysia, kites may have been used historically to forecast the weather.
The practice of celebrating kites with festivals developed around 500 to 600 years ago, Burkhardt said, adding that over the last 50 years, he’s seen everything from giant, air-inflated masterpieces that can hold a vehicle to figurines that resemble people and mythical creatures. In the U.S., where kite flyers generally participate in aesthetic contests that center on craftsmanship and design, festivals tend to feel very casual in nature, he said.
“It’s what I call a photographer’s dream,” Burkhardt said. “It’s a great spectacle, so much color, so much enjoyment.”
Burkhardt has traveled across the world and to nearly every country in Europe to experience different kite festivals, a leisurely pastime that developed a following in Baltimore around 50 years ago, he said. The state’s kiting community — members of which formerly published the Kite Lines quarterly magazine — has produced some of the best-known names in the kite world, he said.
“There’s some competition involved, but we’re mostly focused on enjoying each others company,” he said. “With some sports, people are just hellbent to beat someone else, to be the victor — but kiting is mostly different.”
At the Big Baltimore Kite Festival in Patterson Park last month, kites took on a host of meaning for attendees. Some flew store-bought kites with their children for the first time while others looked on as experienced kite performers put on a synchronized show that resembled an aerial ballet dance. Disney characters attached to strings soared in the air alongside handmade creations decorated with stickers, colored marker and tissue paper.
The event, sponsored by Baltimore’s Creative Alliance and Friends of Patterson Park, hosted a “Will it Fly?” competition, acoustic music and build-your-own kite tents. Ari Pluznik, Creative Alliance’s community arts liaison, said those who planned the festival hoped it would take on a “breezy” feel.
The festival also gave Gary Aime, from Baltimore’s Komite Ayiti — which advocates for and serves the local Haitian community — a chance to teach others about what kites mean in Haiti. Komite Ayiti hosted an instructional workshop before the event where kite flyers learned how to make hexagonal-shaped kites using thin sticks tied together in the shape of a star as a frame.
Aime said in Haiti, people start flying kites around Easter time after church. They represent joy, family, tradition and art, he said.
“It’s huge in Haiti,” he said. “There are competitions like will it fly the highest, the longest, the strongest.”
Paul Valdez and his daughter, Juliana, consulted Aime when their winter-and-butterfly themed kite had its strings tangled in the wind.
“It looks simple, but as you can see it takes a lot of care,” Paul Valdez said.
Hussain Mohammed, a graphic artist from Canton, said he came to the festival to fly kites the way his father did in Trinidad. He said while kite flyers there tend to use theirs for flips, tricks and sky dancing, his father and his friends used to crush glass into tiny shards and strategically place them in the string to cut each others’ down as a game.
He said while he did not place glass shards in his kites at the Patterson Park festival, he felt honored to be carrying on a part of his father’s childhood.
“It was big in previous generations, but not many people know how to do it themselves anymore,” Mohammed said, adding that he uses all biodegradable materials when making his own kites. “There’s not a lot of tradition being passed down anymore.”
Baltimore’s Artesanas Mexicanas, a subset within the Creative Alliance that holds workshops, training and art programs for the city’s Latina community, also added cultural and historical depth to the event. Maria Gabriella Aldana, the group’s director, said warm-weathered kite festivals in Guatemala and other Spanish-speaking countries tend to feature beautiful colors, intricate weaving and large-scale designs. Members of Artesanas Mexicanas showed others how to honor famous women throughout history like Harriet Tubman and Frida Kahlo using paper plates and printed pictures that creators could attach to strings and fly.
New traditions also formed at the Baltimore kite festival. Sisters Louise and Nnadagi Isa from Remington said they welcomed the idea of having a kite festival in their city as an alternative to the one in Washington, D.C., which took place on the same day. And Kerwin Nilles, a 6-year-old Federal Hill resident, said even though he prefers cheetahs, he was excited to see his purple-and-green dragon kite move through the air.
It was his first time flying a kite.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled a person’s last name. The named is Pluznik. We regret the error.