Peeling back a first-impression – behind that “torn” Open Walls mural

lex and sten detail

Torn wallpaper? Viewed close up, this Open Walls mural on Barclay Street appears to be falling down.

Photo by: Ben Halvorsen

If you’ve passed down Barclay Street recently and noticed that some of the new Open Walls Baltimore murals appear to be deteriorating already – they’re not.

That torn-wallpaper effect – with thick strips peeling off and dangling down to the ground – is intentional and, in fact, a trademark technique used by the artists Sten and Lex.

The black-and-white mural in the 1800-block of Barclay by Italian artists Sten & Lex is one of more than 20 created this spring in the Station North Arts District and Barclay neighborhood as part of part of the city-supported Open Walls project.

Ben Stone, the executive director of Station North Arts and Entertainment, was ready to explain the idea behind the piece’s striking look.

“Sten & Lex use an unusual process where they’ll cover a wall in printed paper and then spray paint over part of it,” Stone said. “It’s like a giant stencil that eventually comes off.”

Indeed, Sten & Lex’s creation might look like a peeling mess from close-up, but if one takes a step back and looks at the mural as a whole, the horizontal image of man’s face becomes apparent. The shaved-off pieces of the mural add a disturbing allusion to death and decay  or maybe just suggest multiple meanings.

Stencil poster on wood, Co2 Gallery (Rome, Italy, 2010. (Photo:

Lex and Sten stencil poster on wood, Co2 Gallery (Rome, Italy, 2010. (Photo:

Another mural on Barclay, though, only barely resembles the outline of a human head. In that case, the explanation is a little more mundane.

“The artist was having trouble with the surface of that wall, the stucco wasn’t working for him” Stone explained. “So he got permission to move over to a different wall and do it there. We just haven’t had time to take the old one down yet.”

The artist was Chip Thomas of Arizona.

Besides that one little hiccup, Stone says things have been going smoothly for Open Walls. And not just in terms of the murals.

“So far the reaction has been pretty positive. We haven’t done any formal surveys yet, we’re trying to get those done soon, but from the people I’ve talked to on the street or have come to me seem to like it.”

A resident of the neighborhood, who identified herself only as Prevelia, gave the project the thumbs-up.

“I like it,” she said. “It makes the whole neighborhood look cleaner.”


–  Ben Halvorsen, 17, is interning at Baltimore Brew this month.

Lex and Sten's work on Barclay Street, viewed from a distance. (Photo by Ben Halvorsen)

Sten and Lex's mural on Barclay Street, viewed from a distance. (Photo by Ben Halvorsen)

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  • Jamie Schott

    I saw them putting this one up and was fascinated by the technique. Thanks for this piece.

  • Unellu

    As a statement this is apt and beautiful as  even decay can be beautiful.  Torn like the city is torn, imperfect like the city is imperfect, black and white like the city, symmetric and asymmetric both and from a distance you see things not seen up close.  I always think, perspectives about any place enlarge and become clearer from a distance.  Distance sharpens the observer’s mind.  This is wallpapering the outside–and yes, why should only inside walls be wallpapered?  I like that buildings can be dressed up like people.  The open walls project is all about dressing up worn out buildings and outfitting them for admiration.  Thank you artists.    

  • Allison

    But will the strips stay in place or fall off and litter the street? Although I agree it is a visually interesting mural, the last thing our neighborhoods need is more trash on the sidewalks.

  • Unellu

    Allison a good question.  I wonder if the artists read the Brew–I wish they did and would make an appearance to answer you.  Doesn’t seem to happen often.  The Brew is doing a great service to local artists and artistes.  It should be a regular read for them and they should participate in the conversations.  Thus far the most animated have been members of BROS (whew!) and Nether, he’s made an appearance.  The rest are non entities as far as the Brew goes.  Brew you should toot your own horn a bit more about your role in promoting Baltimore Arts.        

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