Drive through the city and see visions of the past, present and possible future in murals and graffiti tags. Hundreds of them are legal works — sponsored by city-affiliated organizations and nonprofits. Others, under the umbrella "street art," are unsanctioned, often unsigned pieces — many making a political statement. It may be as simple as "No shoot zone" scribbled on the wall of a gas station, or as iconic as the "Whoever died from a rough ride?" billboard at North Avenue and Charles Street, painted after the death of Freddie Gray.
Beginning in 1975, the Beautiful Walls for Baltimore program used federal funds to put 10 artists and their apprentices to work painting murals throughout the city. Today, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts uses a mix of public and private funds to sponsor murals, and in some cases, to restore existing work.
Maggie Villegas, who works for BOPA, estimates that the organization has funded 300 murals throughout the city over the years. Organizations like the Healthy Harbor Initiative, Jubilee Arts and the Open Walls Baltimore project also sponsor murals, while companies like Bozzuto and Sagamore Development have commissioned outdoor artwork to spruce up developments.
And, of course, behind the vibrant array of street art are the artists themselves, who bring their own style and inspiration to each work.
"Nether," perhaps the city's most prolific street artist, paints the side of an old shipping container in a garden off Greenmount Avenue. Like many muralists in the city, Nether works with the community to come up with concepts for his designs.
Since 2015, illustrator Megan Lewis has made the city her exhibition space, the brick of buildings her canvas. She's painted a series of large-scale murals around Baltimore: brightly colored images of women; the Statue of Liberty with an afro, her fist raised defiantly.
"It completely transforms the message when it's larger," said Lewis.
To Gaia, one of the city's best-known muralists, Baltimore has provided an ideal location to work due to the availability of wall space — unlike cities such as New York, for example. In Baltimore, a city with thousands of empty properties, "anything added to a vacant building is seen as a welcome addition," said Gaia, whose real name is Andrew Pisacane. Some of his projects include the painting of an arabber stable in West Baltimore, meant to honor the heritage of merchants with horse-drawn carts.
Like many muralists, Gaia frequently works in blighted neighborhoods – a practice he acknowledges is fraught with complexities. "I think the jury's still out on whether it was just another gentrification project," he said of his Open Walls project.
Artist Richard Best is a former defense contractor who turned to art because, he said, "I wanted to stop contributing to war efforts." His organization, Section 1, is sponsoring 12 murals this year, working with clients like Sagamore.
Best's work is among Baltimore's most high-tech: He's painted several "anaglyphic" murals that can be viewed with 3-D glasses. A future project will incorporate an augmented reality component. Viewers will be able to look at it with a cellphone app and see an animation appear.
But not all art is publicly sanctioned. The "rough ride" billboard is perhaps the most prominent of the illegal works in the city. And some – not all – muralists, including Gaia, maintain a practice of illegal street art.
"If something needs to be said, and no one's willing to say it, then I'll try to execute that," he said. "Generally anonymously."
Street art and murals are ephemeral. Rain, snow and sun take their toll on paint. The passage of time may reduce the impact of its message.
Scroll through the gallery above to look at a few pieces that speak to the state of Baltimore's subconscious today.