Open Walls Baltimore: What the murals said, how the streets responded

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Most of you will know the neighborhood I was walking that early evening in from The Wire. In fact, the school where season four was shot was a few blocks away. That TV show is an eternal point of reference for Baltimore's Greenmount West neighborhood, which Open Walls, the town's first street art festival which I was in the hood to cover, was hoping to combat. The festival, going since March, will conclude with a closing party on May 25.

“Hey! I have a question for you!” Sometimes when you're walking through half-vacant blocks at dusk you don't turn around when people yell at you from across the street (you know white people), but this time the Argentines and I turned. A woman was walking towards us and pointing up at Jetsonorama's massive, half-finished wheatpaste of a man's face hovering in the dark above our heads.

>>RELATED READ: CAITLIN DONOHUE'S INTERVIEW WITH GAIA, THE 23-YEAR OLD STREET ARTIST-ORGANIZER OF OPEN WALLS

“What are you guys doing with that wall? Is that Mr. Tony?”

It should be noted that I have little to nothing to do with Open Walls, though I managed to secure a spot sleeping on a half-inflated mattress in 23-year street artist and festival organizer Gaia's cavernous live-work space for a week to watch the haphazard business of trucking half-cans of paint and open containers of paste across town in various station wagons by underpaid, incredibily dedicated staff and volunteers.

But even though – alongside season four's Primary School No. 42 – hundreds of young artists lived in a massive ex-cork factory just a few blocks from where we had our exchange, it struck me the woman that evening saw us (some white and Latino scruffy-types) as a big enough anomaly on her block that she knew we had to be associated with the steet art festival.  

“You know Mr. Tony?” I asked. “Yeah,” she replied, with something that sounded like worry in her voice. “Why is he up on the wall?” “You'll have to ask the artist,” I said. “Do you like it?” “Oh yeah, it's really nice,” she told us, walking away, back into the night.

Around the corner in an alleyway, I'd seen Jetsonorama's mirror-image pasting on either side of the narrow corrdor; a black kid on his bike. It seemed like he was reflecting the neighborhood back at itself, in stark contrast with the neon triangles and backwards wording of Baltimore artist Josh Van Horn' previously-completed building-sized piece or even Argentine Jaz's corner park, which he'd lined with regal, painterly drawings of big cats. 

So that night, back at Gaia's paint-covered live-work circus, Jetsonorama and I found a quiet place to talk about street art. Of course, I set my Android up wrong and none of the video footage of our epic, enlightening interview recorded, so I'll steal his quotes from an epic and enlightening blog post he later wrote on his trip to Bmore. 

Jetsonorama, a.k.a. 50-something family physician Chip Thomas, lives on a northeastern Arizona Navajo reservation. He initially came for a four-year engagement to pay back his medical school loans, but, he tells me, “I loved the land, loved the people. So I decided to stay on.” His street art career began in 2009 on a trip to Brazil where he was struck by the sense of community that had arisen among the street artists he met there. 

And so upon his return to the rez, he began printing and posting images from photos he'd taken of people and animals there in the community. Jetsonorama saw them as an expression of the hip-hop culture he'd grown up in, love letters to the beleagured reservation he adored. He called the series Big. His next project was the Painted Desert Project, started with a friend. The work started earning props from those omnipresent street art blogs, and Jetsonorama began an online correspondence with Gaia, another artist who does “site-specific” (often a code word for “something the neighborhood will like”) wheatpastes.

The decision of what to paint is a defining aspect of street artists. Many of the artists at Open Walls like Rome's Sten and Lex, Argentina's Jaz, and Capetown's Freddy Sam, create works that follow a specific artistic canon -- like gallery painters, their inspiration can be culled from all over. Others, like Gaia, Jetsonorama, Chris Stain -- even the New York artist LNY who dropped through Baltimore for a night to put up his wheatpaste of a boy astride a halo-ed horse -- will often choose themes that reflect the geographic location of their work. This approach can often lead to a sense that a piece was created for neighborhood residents, avoiding the fate of pieces like Swoon's Open Walls wheatpaste of an ancient woman (an Aborigine elder she met in Australia, though that fact was apparent in the finished piece.) The neighborhood, it was said around among the street artists, didn't really get that piece, found it "creepy."

Freddy Sam comments on his wall's reception in Baltimore

To date, Jetsonorama is the only African American artist that is part of the Open Walls, which made his exchanges with neighborhood residents particularly meaningful. 

Indeed, they shaped his time in Baltimore. When Jetsonorama's first attempt at pasting up Mr. Tony -- a neighborhood legend, by the way, known for raising pigeons and wearing quarters in the stretched holes in his earlobes, which Tony will tell you is his change for the payphone -- failed on an unprepped wall, he tried again. As he and street artist-festival organizer Nanook worked into the wee hours of the morning on the first draft, the block turned out to support them, telling them how much they liked the piece. So when the wheatpaste refused to stick to the wall, Jetsonorama extended his eight-day trip, eventually staying for two weeks and turning out a second version of Tony and a few other pieces. 

Open Walls Baltimore was all about balancing art and neighborhood – an apt reflection of the city's plan for those blocks, given that Greenmount West and adjoining Charles North are both parts of the planned Station North arts district. In addition to the half-vacant blocks, Greenmount West is marked by old factories that have been filled with hundreds of working artists. Artists plus low-income renters: an age-old recipe for gentrification.

Those involved with Open Walls are well aware that their project may be a harbinger of higher rents in the neighborhood. “There's a latent fear of this being one aspect of a changing neighborhood,” festival organizer and 23-year old wheatpaste artist Gaia told me when I interviewed him in his live-work studio space, the chaotic center of Open Walls. 

“Not all developers are totally evil, despite what people may say,” says Ben Stone, executive director of Station North, the area's arts advocacy organization that is playing a large role in the implementation of Open Walls. Our interview took place at a sidewalk cafe in front of Cafe Bohemian on Charles Street, the bustling center of the North Charles neighborhood that was once the commercial center of the city in addition to being its geographic hub (the bus and train station is a few blocks away.) Stone told me that neighborhood associations envision a future for the area that includes the same number of low income units – but no more. That means that all the infill of those abandoned buildings can be more expensive housing, even "30-story buildings," Stone says.

Stone tells me that the aim behind Open Walls is to attract real estate developers to the area so more of the empty properties can be turned into housing and other businesses. It also looks to make visible the art scene that is going on in Greenmount West behind the doors like those of the famous Copy Cat, an ex-factory megalith of artist housing. Doing murals out on the street inspires conversation between the street artists and the other residents of Greenmount West. 

Jetsonorama certainly found that to be true. He tells me a handful of stories of neighbors taking pride in the fact that a black man was participating in an endeavor that was seen as being controlled by forces outside the neighborhood. He recounts an exchange that happened while putting up a piece for Open Walls in the Station Village area. A woman stopped at a light, rolled down her car window, and yelled at him the following: 

“That's nice! I like that. Thank you for sharing your art with us. Be sure to put your name on it when you're done because if you don't, the white man will come along and say he did it."  

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