Can big, bold murals bring value to Baltimore’s many vacants?

Open Walls Baltimore brings international artists to Station North.

open walls 3

Art by Gaia on vacant building at Charles and North in Station North, kicking off the ambitious “Open Walls” project.

Photo by: Fern Shen

Passersby might think that the big white bird painted on the front of the vacant former fried chicken joint at Charles Street and North Avenue is a dove and simply one of the countless murals Baltimore has used for years to perk up struggling neighborhoods.

They’d be sort of right . . . but off by several orders of magnitude.

The artwork is the first of at least 20 to be painted in the Station North Arts & Entertainment District by local, national and international artists as part of the nearly $100,000 Open Walls Baltimore project. And the bird, shown held in a human hand, is actually a carrier pigeon, says the artist.

“It’s a bird that has a relationship with man – we affect it. People have this relationship with the natural world that’s complicated,” said Gaia, Baltimore’s homegrown (and now world-renowned) street artist, who is curating the show.

“It’s maybe, less a metaphor than a straight appreciation of this beautiful bird.”

But what message is the pigeon and the whole project – sponsored by PNC Bank, a National Endowment for the Arts grant and other donors – delivering?

(Gaia will surely be asked this tonight at 5:30 at the Windup Space, when Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and others kick off the three-month project.)

“It’s going to let people know this is really an arts district,” said the former Maryland Institute College of Art student.

In Miami, "Flora of Ukraine," by the artists Interesni Kazki, who will be participating in Baltimore's "Open Walls" project. (Flickr)

In Miami, "Flora of Ukraine," by the artists Interesni Kazki, who will be participating in Baltimore's "Open Walls" project. (Flickr)

But Gaia and other organizers also talk about how they want the murals to do so much more: to help them build a bridge between Station North and Greenmount West. The former may be a haven for artists, students and assorted hipsters, the latter an economically-challenged community of longtime residents, but they share the problem of blighted homes and vacant commercial buildings.

The Open Walls organizers view their large-scale, geographically-focused art-making as a kind of emergency oxygen treatment for two Baltimore communities that often seem, in their own ways, to be gasping for breath.

“We know that people are always more willing to invest in neighborhoods where they feel like somebody cares and there’s some community life,” said Ben Stone, Station North’s executive director. “This is going to bring in a lot of different people and really activate the neighborhood.”

He Was Like, Word!

So how did such a big-ticket project fall into the lap of a graffiti artist who still asks reporters to use his street tag (Gaia, primordial Earth-goddess of the ancient Greeks), which he adopted since his art form is in most cities technically illegal?

Gaia said it all began when he met a PNC bank executive at his senior year show at MICA and told him about some of the large-scale public art projects in other cities, such as Living Walls in Atlanta and Wynwood Walls in Miami.

“He asked me what it would cost to do that here,” Gaia recalled, “and I dropped a pretty conservative number and he was like, ‘Oh, word!’”

In other words, the bank guy liked it.

Gaia teamed up with Stone, who helped with more fundraising, lining up the community partners (the Charles North Community Association and the New Greenmount West Community Association) and conceptualizing the project.

Not Your Father’s Murals

Asked what will differentiate the murals from the ones scattered across Baltimore, Stone notes that the quality will be good (“these are real artists who participate in juried shows) and that the scale will be large (“we’ve got a 40-foot lift truck.”) The second mural is being made on the 50-foot high wall of the parking garage across the street from the Charles Theatre.

Concentrating the art in one area will make it a kind of destination, he said and another distinguishing feature is that the artists will be using some unusual media.

“One of them is doing human body casts. Another is applying plaster and then chipping away at it” to make a bas relief, he said.

The Politics of Public Art

What to expect from the art? Some of the participating artists have a style that is abstract, while others’ is more representational, like that of Sten and Lex from Italy and Interesni Kazki, from Ukraine.

 From Interesni Kazki's "Flora of Ukraine" a detail: "Social Parasite."

From Interesni Kazki's "Flora of Ukraine" a detail: "Social Parasite." (Flickr)

Interesni, in fact, wrapped a whole building in Miami with a work titled “Flora of Ukraine” that includes a traffic cop taking a bribe and a cross-legged meditator cradling money in his lap.

So, Stone was asked, will some of the Baltimore murals be not just representational but political? Not really, he said.

“A lot of street artists are extremely political and we mostly left out a lot of those,” he said. “We don’t want it to seem like we’re exploiting the walls of Baltimore for some political message, even if it’s a message we might happen to agree with.”

And yet they are artists, so “under the surface” there’s “inevitably” going to be some subtext, Stone observed.

A 2011 project of Sten + Lex.

A 2011 work by Sten & Lex. (Facebook)

Another sensitive task was choosing what buildings to put the art on.

Murals can implicitly be “stigmatizing,” Stone pointed out. “Think about it: you never see a mural in Roland Park. You often see them in blighted neighborhoods, on problem corners.”

For that reason the Open Walls art work is going on “viable businesses,” as well as vacant structures, he said. Stone has been negotiating with these property-owners and businesses, in part to make sure they’re matched with an artist whose work they like. (“That hasn’t always been easy!” he said, with a sigh.)

Where Art Meets Real Estate

Still, Stone is excited by the prospect of turning the area into a huge al fresco art gallery this spring and frank about the urgency that drives the project.

In spite of support from the city and MICA, there are still vacant buildings and rubble-filled lots in Station North, along with the galleries, artists’ studios, theater company (Single Carrot Theatre) and upscale pizza and microbrew establishments.

Among the problem vacants are several city-owned structures, including the corner building where Gaia painted his pigeon and the adjacent Parkway Theatre, a deteriorating gem of a movie house where redevelopment plans have been stalled for years.

Other buildings, like 10 E. North Avenue and the North Avenue Market, are in line for  renovation, but it’s happening very slowly.

Meanwhile, neighboring residential communities are fighting their own battle with boarded-up structures, part of the city-wide war against disinvestment and blight.

So, is Open Walls a Baltimore application of James Q. Wilson’s controversial “broken windows” theory, the idea that crime can be reduced and communities made healthier by keeping up appearances (repairing broken windows, for instance)?

The conservative theorist’s principal has been mostly applied to policing quality of-life crimes like street-corner, drug-dealing, litter and (ironically) graffiti art.

Stone’s not going there. “It’s not like we’re pretending everything is going to be fine after this,” he said, “but we think it can have a really meaningful  impact.”

One major component of the project, he said, is the process of making the murals, which are planned not just for places like North Avenue and Charles Street but for non-artsy, residential areas like Brentwood Avenue and Chase, East Oliver and Latrobe streets.

“We’ll have artists working on these things for 10 days straight – they’ll be in the neighborhood,” Stone said.

“It’s been hard for us to reach out to communities only two blocks away, but this will help.”

They plan lectures, barbecues to celebrate completed murals and a newsletter to keep area residents informed. These events, Gaia said, might bring together two other groups that have traditionally regarded each other across a gulf – starving artists and property-owners and developers.

“The artist community is extremely afraid of gentrification,” Gaia said. “They’re scared to death the owners are going to sell the Copy Cat Building.”

Maybe Open Walls, he said, can be a good opportunity for all the parties with a stake in the area’s future to meet and plan it together.

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  • westside resident

    Whatever happened to the home for a dollar program? I don’t understand why the city continues to sit on property when they could be selling homes off in some promising areas of the city. I look at Barre Circle, Otterbein and Ridgely’s Delight and wonder why the city did away with that program at all.

    • Lars Peterson

       Dollar? Try FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS, that’s what our city paid for the New York Fried Chicken building, pictured at the top of the page.  It wasn’t vacant until the city bought it for the purposes of delivering it to a developer who planned to build a steakhouse-theater-abattoir on that corner.

  • Gerald Neily

    Answer: Yes, the murals can bring value, but only the spiritual kind – “The artist community is extremely afraid of gentrification,” Gaia said. “They’re scared to death the owners are going to sell the Copy Cat Building.” Keep out the damn Yuppies who measure things in monetary terms. Keep Baltimore spiritually pure, broke and beholden to the state and federal governments and corporate patrons.

  • Tom

    Oh, word! Excellent project.

  • Tom Kiefaber

    The writer notes James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows theory” in connection to the Open Walls project in Station North. The best way to understand the core Wilson is by borrowing the title of one of his essays: “The Rediscovery of Character.”Also there is a good article in the NYtimes about Wilson.

    • Mair

      Thoroughly enjoyed the article. Great background. Thanks for the link.

  • Gerald Neily

    We live in an age of jarring juxtapositions as a substitute for rational urban systems. Understanding the postmodern world is beyond our comprehension, so we stick things in the petri dish just to see what happens, like graphics on an old building (or a Jimi Hendrix bus/album cover). We decry the suburbs because they actually make rational sense (at least on some level to the people who live there) and gentrification because it also suggests some kind of rational regimented movement, while celebrating urban pioneers who merely stake a claim within the debris. At the other extreme, the big money keeps on plotting billions of dollars for convention arenas and rail transit lines in desperate attempts at urban shock therapy. In sum, cities like Baltimore are our last chance to make civilization work as an actual place, and we’re blowing it.

    Here’s my attempt to instill some rationality on North Avenue: 

  • Marc

    IMO there are plenty of talented artists in B’more who can create some very stirring murals,  but I’m not sure murals are an effective “broken windows” tactic. Ironically, one of the easiest ways you can tell you’re in a bad neighborhood these days is when you start seeing murals all over the place. They’re just as much an indicator of trouble as the weed-choked vacant lot or the boarded window are. If we saw “hopetimistic” murals pop up in Roland Park, for example, we’d know that something must have gone seriously wrong in that neighborhood.

    Ultimately I think the murals designed to perk up vacant buildings often end up looking like band aids – they reveal injuries and might even attract the shady elements that like to prey on struggling neighborhoods (as James Wilson argued). If done well they can be quite attractive, but they’re a meager “holding pattern” at best. The city would do better by eliminating its bureaucratic “land banking” of buildings – i.e. the process in which it sits on large tracts of vacant buildings/land for decades waiting to award them to speculators who never show up. Like it or not, we’re in a new era of capital scarcity, so waiting for megadevelopers to rebuild large tracts of land-banked buildings is a futile effort. The city needs to make it easy (and fun! and safe! and cheap!) for small adventurers to restore these places at a finer grain one building, one lot at a time, as was kinda the case in neighborhoods like Fed Hill and Fells Point.

    And gentrification is nothing to fear. It’s merely the opposite of an even more terrifying process – slummification. Thank god some parts of B’more gentrified, otherwise the city would be like Detroit – a burned-out donut – by now. So IMO B’more can use all the gentrification it can get. And the city still has a vast oversupply of cheap “affordable housing” (shabby but still salvageable vacant rowhouses) that will be able to meet the needs of artists and other bohemians for a looong time.

  • Unellu


    Every time I come upon art–
    on a building,
    as I am driving my car–
    I am jolted, I sit bolt upright,
    I slow down, I pull over,
    I stop–
    I think to myself —
    we are never better
    than when we are doing art–
    over dereliction–
    when we are splashing color over drab–
    when we are giving our sense of space–
    a new sensory input–
    we are never better than
    when we are experiencing
    the sensuality of fading light and shadows
    playing hide and seek–
    over cityscapes–
    we are never as exalted
    as when we are drawn to the conversion
    of blight– by human hands–
    and human eyes–
    to beauty–
    we can only redeem ruin
    by making out of it a living museum–
    I see the tourists lining up–
    “Are you ready folks?
    Today we’re taking you
    on an art tour of Baltimore–
    the artists are here–
    they’ll tell you their stories–
    Come along for the ride–
    hear how this city went–
    from unprepossessing to captivating–
    from dilapidated
    to a stunning array of murals
    on buildings decaying at the seams–
    unraveling–but now alive–
    and marvel how over the mundane
    we can put translucence and to the opaque–
    we can bring the iridescence
    of an artist’s inner light!”

    Usha Nellore 




  • station north artist

    I’m an artist living in this neighborhood, and two of these murals are
    going up on my building.  I
    think this project is a waste of resources – they’re flying people in
    from all over the world rather than focusing
    on the many, many talented local artists we have in Baltimore.  As tenants, we
    weren’t told about the murals going up.   One of them is interfering in a
    project a friend of mine was planning, and even though we’ve been
    renting this space for 2 years they’re going ahead anyway.  Even without
    my personal bone to pick with this project, I’m really skeptical about
    this as an urban renewal or artistic project.  Baltimore has plenty of
    murals.  Why not use this money to pay local artist to teach art in the
    woefully underfunded public schools?

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