The Load of Fun graffiti alley isn't visible from the intersection of North Avenue and Howard Street, which is gray and beige and blighted and grim. Nearby is a nondescript motel and a check-cashing service with a barred entrance.
But when visitors walk north on Howard Street and turn onto the quirkily named 191/2 Street, suddenly, there the alley is. People abruptly stop walking and even lean back slightly. They draw in their chins and swallow their breaths.
It's almost like stepping into an ancient walled European city or an outdoor urban cathedral. Rows of small white Italian lights are strung overhead, the better to illuminate the walls, which are covered to a height of about 10 feet with hundreds of vibrantly colored abstract paintings. Stylized letters are superimposed atop one another - cherry "R's" and lemon "M's," grape "P's" and orange "A's," tumbled together like hard candy in a dish.
"Every day it's different," says Sherwin Mark, owner of the Load of Fun performance space and gallery, whose walls form both sides of the L-shaped alley. "When I come to work, I park my car and walk around to the alley to see what's happened since yesterday. The result is beautifully ornate and jewel-like, with a stained-glass feel."
This alley behind 120 W. North Ave. is the only place in Baltimore where graffiti artists can ply their trade without risking arrest. On any given day, visitors might include a pair of elderly tourists clutching postcards and looking for the work of artist Dave Hupp, who has exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution. Or a professor from the Maryland Institute College of Art, leading students on a tour.
Another time, veteran graffiti artist Omar Grady, 36, can be found patiently teaching spraying techniques to two 14-year-old boys who have sketched their designs into large black notebooks.
"There's a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it, and these kids study it as if it were calculus," says Karly Fae Hansen, a former Load of Fun intern and the alley's unofficial archivist.
The alley - one of those places that is quintessentially Baltimore - has existed in its present incarnation for about two years. The fact that it exists at all is a minor miracle, due in equal parts to Mark's and Hansen's determination, to city officials' willingness to bend rules and to the graffiti artists themselves, who ensure that the alley maintains a family atmosphere.
The walls contain no obscenities, gang slogans, ethnic slurs or graphic depictions of sex organs. There aren't even any stray food wrappers.
"There used to be a lot of trash in the alley: used needles, human waste and spent condoms," says Hansen, who has compiled a photographic history of the alley on the Load of Fun Web site ( www.loadoffun.net) and in a group on the photo-sharing site Flickr ( www.flickr.com/groups/612452 @N22).
"The alley wasn't dangerous, but it wasn't pleasant. Then the graffiti artists came in. Now, the most offensive thing you'll find is a plastic chair that has three Gummi bears on the seat."
Graffiti drawing is dangerous, illegal and punishable by a jail term. Anyone who has spray-painted freight trains or underpasses for any length of time tells stories about being chased and, in some cases, shot at. Homeowners laboring to salvage borderline neighborhoods understandably become enraged when scrawled slogans deface their garages and local grocery store.
The spray-painters themselves distinguish between gang members, who write on walls to recruit members and stake out their territory, and the muralists for whom graffiti is a form of self-expression.
A 39-year-old writer known as "Adam Stab," whose artistic proficiency has placed him at the top of the local graffiti community, puts it like this: "I'm on the side of every cop when it comes to protecting private owners and individuals from attack. That's not what graffiti is supposed to be about."
"Stab," Hupp and Grady (who writes under the name "Verse") adhere to an unwritten code: Graffiti has no place on churches, private homes, small businesses and public monuments. Anything else, in their view - though not in the view of government officials - is fair game.
When Mark purchased Load of Fun in 2005, the building exterior was scribbled with crude lettering. "It was black and white, mostly. Nothing very intricate."
He commissioned a few murals for the back of his building. Graffiti began to appear over the murals, but it was nothing like the old stuff. The new pieces were colorful, artistically sophisticated and obviously crafted with care.
"I'd watch people work," Mark says. "They all carry around these notebooks with hundreds of pages of designs. There are six or seven different styles of script. They'll work for hours to make this edge more rounded, that edge more square. As much as some people are into lacrosse, these guys are into their different [spray can] caps and the width of the spray."
(Grady, for instance, a tow-truck driver, spends between $90 and $150 each month on spray paint.)
But the alley didn't really take off until late summer of 2007, when a national gathering of graffiti writers came to Baltimore and congregated one evening at Load of Fun. "The whole alley was filled with barbecue smoke and spray paint," Hansen says.
Police issued a citation to Mark when he refused to paint over the graffiti, as buildings owners in the city are required to do. He consulted a lawyer specializing in free-speech issues.
The standoff continued for months, until he and Hansen discovered one winter morning that the entire alley had been painted white from top to bottom. Hundreds of paintings, thousands of hours of painstaking labor, had been summarily wiped out.
"It was devastating," Hansen says. "I called it Heartbreak Alley for a while."
What happened next was even worse. Almost overnight, a scarier group of graffiti writers moved in, and the walls filled with gang symbols, racist slogans, messages supporting al-Qaida.
Mark took "before" and "after" photos. He met with officials and hammered out an agreement: The city agreed to tolerate any graffiti confined to the L-shaped alley. Mark agreed to remove tags or paintings that appeared anywhere else on the block.
City officials say they were won over by Mark's arguments and by the support he received from nearby businesses. But they describe the alley as a unique situation.
"The alley isn't really visible from the street, and I'm OK with it as long as the community is OK with it," says Eric Booker, the city's assistant commissioner of code enforcement and inspection. "These guys aren't defacing public property. You could make the argument that they're just painting their walls. But this solution won't work in every neighborhood."
Hansen contacted her network of graffiti artists, reassured them that the alley was once again safe, and the L gradually returned to its former glory.
"Stab," who would not provide his real name because of the illegality involved, considers his two-plus decades of writing graffiti to be among the purest hours he's ever spent. "It's like a form of meditation. You take a small breath. You bend over, you make a quick stroke, and there you are."
Graffiti gained some legitimacy when the Smithsonian included two writers in a National Portrait Gallery exhibit on hip-hop culture in 2008. On display were the talents of Hupp and painting partner Tim Conlon of Washington. Hupp, a 36-year-old Baltimorean, created his first piece of graffiti at age 13 on his grandmother's shed.
"What I found to be particularly compelling was how Dave and Tim had transformed this street-art aesthetic into something that really might hold its own in a museum context," says Frank Goodyear III, who co-curated the exhibit. "Their compositions are really creative, and their use of color is superb. They do innovative things like adding cartoon-like faces to their tags." Art historians trace graffiti back to the 32,000-year-old cave paintings in southwestern France. More recently, the wave of graffiti that swept through the U.S. in the late 1960s has influenced such prominent contemporary artists as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Goodyear says.
"There is a desire that has revealed itself throughout human history to mark our space, to give ourselves a presence in the world in which we live," he says. "The fact that people are picking up aerosol paint cans to do this is just the latest chapter in the evolution of human mark-making."
Some in Baltimore's community of illegal underpass and water tower scribes say that graffiti created in an officially designated place - whether the Smithsonian or the Load of Fun alley - is not authentic.
"They aren't claiming any space," says "Stab." "They aren't making a personal decision to take something that doesn't belong to them and put their tag on it. That's the process one has to go through to be a graffiti writer, and it cannot be changed."
Hupp agrees that taking a risk is an essential component of graffiti, but he enjoyed exhibiting his work in such a prominent public venue.
"It's good to be alive and in the Smithsonian," he says. "It wasn't so many years ago that you had to be dead to exhibit there. Tim and I would walk into the Smithsonian, down these marble floors and past these marble pillars, and find people posing in front of our work. It was so cool."
Hupp's father is a former police officer. After years of getting the then-teenage Dave out of scrapes, it was a thrill for the older man to see his boy's talents on display. They joked about the artist's sudden change in status from outlaw to icon.
"I told my father," Hupp says, "that it's good to see that crime pays.' "
Every subculture has its own slang, and graffiti is no exception. Some common terms:
* Toys: Beginning graffiti writers, often kids.
* Bulls: Railroad police. Freight trains are a favorite target of graffiti writers, because their work will be seen nationwide.
* Throw-up: Graffiti done on the fly, often in a public and highly visible place. The letters may be outlines only ("hollows"), or filled with just one or two colors.
* Bomb: A few letters of someone's tag, such as "Ver" for "Verse." When superimposed over a piece by another writer, it can start a tag war.
* Heaven spot: A high and frequently dangerous spot for graffiti, such as a rooftop or water tower.
Consider this Graffiti for Dummies - pertinent points about the subculture.
* TAGS: Graffiti consists mainly of stylized nicknames that writers place on public places, and the writers consider these tags to be a form of self-portraiture. Small letters included within the tag designate the writers' crews.
* CREWS: Writers, who are overwhelmingly young and male, usually paint in two-member crews. They take turns painting and acting as a lookout.
* THE BALTIMORE HAND-STYLE: The modern incarnation of graffiti began in the late 1960s in Philadelphia subway stations, spread to New York, and then filtered down to Baltimore. Each city has a distinct style - Baltimore writings slant decidedly to the left. Letters are unusually chunky and fat, and tend to be joined, as in cursive handwriting.
* TAG WARS: In the graffiti world's hierarchy, writers only paint over work by inferior or less-experienced scribes. The goal is to "improve" the underlying piece. When the artistic merits of the covering image is in dispute, a "tag war" can ensue in which rival writers paint over - and vie to outdo - one another.
* GONE WITH THE WIND. Writers know graffiti might be whitewashed by city workers or painted over by another crew. The experienced carry portfolios of their best work, photographed while it is fresh.