Ever since I visited the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami during the shock and awe of Art Basel 2011, the concept of street art as an agent of neighborhood change has been loitering around my brain space. What does it mean that an art that was once deemed outsider is now on the radar of bankers and real estate brokers alike as a means of increasing property value?
Perhaps no one has looked more into the matter than Gaia, sociological wheatpaste artist and 23-year old organizer of Baltimore's first large-scale public arts festival Open Walls. Since March, Gaia has coordinated walls by over 23 artists in his neighborhood of half-vacant blocks of row houses and factory buildings, Greenmount West (and the adjacent, less economically-depressed Charles North.) The area has been pegged as an arts district by Baltimore's cultural organizations – and perhaps more importantly, the bank sponsors of Open Walls. The festival culminates in a Final Friday celebration on May 25.
Gaia thinks a lot about where his murals are placed. For a wheatpaste series he called his Legacy Project, he installed the faces of developers throughout history -- Robert Moses, Le Corbusier -- often alongside their most damning quotes, on the very urban areas they irrevocably altered with slum clearance.
I sat down with him to talk in his studio and festival mission control, a ramshackle converted factory space where the bulk of Open Walls' artists bunk on air mattresses and sometimes – I can personally attest – in the building's freight elevator. We talked about what the murals would mean to Baltimore, and geeked out on social contradiction.
SFBG: Tell me about Open Walls.
G: It's not very community involved. It is more of a street art, public art situation where a lot of material for the work is being generated from the neighborhood. But a lot of it is not specific, it's just about mural-making. I've been trying to find a balance as a curator of site-determined work and work that's not generated by the context of Baltimore.
SFBG: Why is site-specific street art important for a festival like this?
G: One, it provides more access to the artwork for the initial introduction of the piece to the neighborhood. Advertising and street art, we utilize the same signifiers and tools. The difference being, the artwork attempts to communicate beyond the place of sale. The less specific your work is, the closer to guerrilla branding it is, rather than street art or genuine public art. So by working with the history of a place in a manner that's determined by the space you're working in, you circumvent the problem of promoting yourself. You're not just plastering a single image all over the city – that's a graffiti mentality that is more like straight advertisement.
SFBG: Why do you like living in Baltimore?
G: I like how tough this city is. It feels almost human in scale. You can be on a first name basis with the neighbors. Plus, I can make a living and not have to work two jobs or be a barista rather than focusing on my art. And it has all these secrets that take a million years to find. All the cutty neighborhoods, all the cutty streets...
SFBG: Do you think that there's any way current residents will be able to keep their space here in Greenmount West, what with all the arts and revitalization movement?
G: Most of the vacant buildings are owned by the government. It all depends on the government. A significant portion of the neighborhood is subsidized housing. When the government decides to flip this neighborhood, that'll change everything. Most everything you see that is vacant is vacant for a reason – it's not this mysterious, mystical, organic situation. A lot of them are being held by speculators, Many public, private organizations are responsible for holding onto them so that something could be done to them. For the most part, it's decades of the waiting game.
SFBG: Did you talk to neighborhood groups before painting started?
G: We talked to the New Greenmount West Community Association. There was a plan that was presented to them, there was an idea of these are the artists and this is where we want to paint. We worked on lining up landlords with an artist that they dig. Balancing that local aesthetic and the more spectacular aesthetic. We've definitely had a little negative feedback and a lot of positive feedback. I think people are wary of it because its the most visible aspect of this process of gentrification. People never walk up to a contractor and say 'Hey you cant build this building,' but people walk up to murals all the time. It becomes a lightning rod. There's a latent fear of this being one aspect of a shifting neighborhood.
SFBG: What does Open Walls mean for Baltimore?
G: We're coming at this project from a lot of different angles. We want to put Baltimore on the map, at least give it some shine. We want to fuel more interest in the local art scene and make visible what happens invisibly inside. Putting it out on the streets, so you know exactly where you're at. Really it's just about pushing the envelope in Baltimore. You know, we have so many vacant properties. But this is also about cooperation between stakeholders in this neighborhood.
A year and a half ago my block was two rows of vacant buildings, the abandoned coat factory, and an abandoned green space in front of my house. Now there's City Arts, which is subsidized living for artists. There's a lot going on in the neighborhood, a lot of reinvestment.
There's so many abandoned buildings in Baltimore. I mean it's suburbanization fueled by the flow of capital and racism. The city went from one million people to a city of 640,000 so there's a lot of empty space and not much to do with it. The flow of capital comes back around. We have this aesthetic conjuncture of people moving back to the city. We've been experiencing divestment for sixty, seventy years now, so its about time.
SFBG: Is that the goal of the festival, to reverse suburbanization?
G: The goal is to make good art work. The goal is to find a balance between interesting, really inspiring, and also intriguing art on the walls – but also to find a balance between that and something that speaks to the neighborhood. I've been [placing] the more spectacular, flashy murals on Charles Street. The theater is there, that's where all the nightlife is. I've been keeping it more local on the west side. It's all about trying to understand the sliding scale of subjectivity. I try to shy away from artwork “by consensus” if you will.
Watch this space for Caitlin Donohue's continued coverage of Open Walls including -- duh -- shots of the actual murals