Oversized illustrations of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin have begun to spring up on abandoned buildings throughout Baltimore, the work of a street artist protesting the death of the 17-year-old at the hands of a neighborhood watch volunteer.
An image of the young man's hooded face went up overnight on Wednesday at the intersection of Caroline and Baltimore streets. Only the youth's chin is visible, but a bag of Skittles — the type of candy Trayvon was carrying when he was shot — is superimposed in the lower right corner of the poster.
A similar wheat paste painting appeared Friday morning at Franklin and Park Avenues, and the photographer and painter artist, who uses the pseudonym of Justin Nether, is planning to put up eight to ten more in the coming weeks, and all on vacant properties.
"This is an issue that still needs to be addressed," the 22-year-old Seton Hill resident said in a phone interview. Like most street artists, he wouldn't allow his legal name to be used.
"Racism still exists in America and in Baltimore even though we pretend that it doesn't. If people see these images and are affected by them, then maybe things will begin to change."
Nether said he didn't ask permission from the building owners before pasting up the posters, and acknowledged that what he's doing is "on the gray side" of the law.
He said that's why he uses wheat paste — a mix of flour, water and wood glue that is less permanent than the paints used for graffiti. He paints his images on top of a heavy graphic paper, which can easily be scrubbed off.
Nether has been pasting up his posters for two years, and many have political or social themes. Another series showed local adults and children removing gas masks to sniff a flower. But, this is the first group of works that he's done in response to a hot-button issue in the news, and he senses that he's struck a chord.
"I'm getting a great reaction to this series," he said. "Within minutes of posting the images online, they had hundreds of hits."
Nether began his career as a photographer. He studied for two years at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and takes courses locally at Towson University and the Maryland Institute, College of Art.
But after encountering Gaia and other Baltimore street artists, Nether realized he didn't want to be limited to documenting just those objects that were actually present. To create the image of Trayvon, he started with a photograph of a hoodie. Then, he sketched the boy's chin beneath the garment, and covered the finished portrait with a layer of wheat paste.
By the time he's finished, the original photograph has disappeared.
Nether completed the image in about six hours. As he was worked, he thought about how a hood can change a simple sweat shirt into something that can appear more menacing.
"It's just a piece of clothing," he says. "But, because it covers the face, it can be a darker thing."