I’ve recently spent some time planning a trip to Berlin and I’ve noticed that, on sites like Airbnb, “graffiti” and “street art” function almost as code. On reviews of apartments, the obviously bougie people complain about being a little nervous about the neighborhood because the walls are covered with graffiti. Other hosts, hoping to rent their apartments, laud the colorful street art in the same neighborhood. Of course, in Berlin, the signifier is heightened by the graffiti on the preserved bit of the Berlin Wall. But still, after reading dozens of these kinds of things, I must confess that I was drawn to some of the graffitied neighborhoods in part because of those descriptions, imagining, “it’s something like the Station North of Berlin.”
And that’s what Station North Arts and Entertainment (SNAE) wants me to think. That might be why they have spent, according to SNAE Executive Director Ben Stone, “just over $100,000” on Open Walls Baltimore, the mural and street art project in Station North now in its second incarnation, which is transforming the look of the state-anointed arts and entertainment district. As the mayor said when she cut the ribbon for the Station North Arts and Entertainment District office (the Chicken Box) standing beneath a mural of a hand holding a dove, done by Gaia, the shaggy-haired wunderkind curator of Open Walls, “The vibrancy we see in Station North is what we need in order to grow Baltimore by 10 thousand families over the next decade.” And everyone else follows suit: When people talk about Open Walls, they mainly talk about politics and economics, rather than aesthetics.
And there’s certainly a lot of politics to talk about. Everyone who lives in or even passes through a community sees a mural, but, by nature, only a few get to create it, or choose the subject matter. Bad or insensitive murals can feel assaulting to the resident or the passerby, so the community feels a right to be included. And yet, everyone has a different version of “bad” and every mural, however great to some people, will be bad to someone. And those unfortunate pieces that try not to offend end up hated by all.
This is always difficult but even more so with a project as ambitious as Open Walls. The first installment went up in 2012 and contained 23 murals by artists from all over the world. The mayor stood on the stage at the Windup Space with Gaia, who had previously done illegal work, at the launch party. The second part, completed (sort of, more on that in a minute) this summer features 16 pieces by 17 different artists. This means that walls of 39 buildings have been curated by this 25-year-old MICA grad from the Upper East Side of New York City. He has had a bigger influence on the aesthetic cast of a section of the city than any other curator in town. Hell, he has more power over the look of the city than anyone who isn’t a major developer like Michael Beatty or John Paterakis—and arguably more than anyone since Willie Don Schaefer. That may be overstating it, but still, it’s crazy.
Though the first Open Walls was widely praised, the lack of inclusion came to a head at the launch party for Open Walls Baltimore 2 (OWB2), when the art and activist group Luminous Intervention called it a “sausage party” because only two women were included in the project. A couple more women—notably Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, whose “Stop Telling Women to Smile” work has a decidedly political bent—were added. It was a good move because the best street art has always had a subversive, political bent. In fact, Wall Hunters—curated by the street artist Nether in conjunction with Carol Ott, a Republican who runs Housing Policy Watch, to draw attention to vacant houses in Baltimore—feels, as a whole, so much more successful than Open Walls because it maintains this political edge. Nether is able to accomplish the rare task of seeking community input by taking their side against an enemy, helping them draw attention to the deplorable condition of some of the vacants in their neighborhoods. And instead of using public money (as Steven Powers’ mural 'Forever Together' did, to the consternation of budget hawks), he is privately funded. It feels rebellious and punk and yet also righteous.
OWB can’t maintain that same edge. It is trying to say something different. It feels more marketing-oriented and safe. In a sense, the content of the paintings is irrelevant. At some level, the paintings exist so that websites can talk about them as an example of the vibrancy which the mayor and others think will draw the “creative class” to the city.
All of the stories about Open Walls buy into this angle—“People are doing a big street-art project!”—without really looking at the aesthetic content of the project. But it is important to look past all of these trappings and see the work as art.
I recently spent a day walking to each of the OWB2 paintings. There was no map available from SNAE (they now provide one, but the Open Walls website is still sorely lacking), so I just sort of drifted towards ones I knew and eventually ran, randomly, into all but two of the murals in one two-hour trek. There is something to be said for the random route, a bit of a thrill with each mural you happen upon, but when you know where they are (see our guide with addresses provided by SNAE), it takes almost no time. SNAE is leading walking tours to the paintings throughout Artscape, and it is worth distancing yourself from all of the politics and noise—not to mention food stalls, bad bands, and trinket-y art—to actually look at what is ultimately a hugely ambitious outdoor show of painting.
Sure, some of the works are obviously just a part of that PR campaign and look like a generic abstract piece of “street art” that could never offend or scare anyone. It is decorative—with a touch of irony, perhaps, but that’s about it.
This attitude is most apparent on Escif’s deplorable half smiley face. The so-generic-it-has-to-be-ironic emblem of the yellow smiling face rises across the building with the words “Looks Much Better Now” written across the top. That is the perfect statement for a certain kind of street art: On the one hand, it pats itself on the back for its own witty commentary on street art, while, on the other, it still says, “as long as it’s better than a blank wall, cool, smile and look at it instead of all the vacant buildings.”
Almost all of the murals have some really cool little detail—with the exception of Escif’s ‘Looks Much Better Now’ and perhaps Santtu Mustonen’s piece on the wall behind the YNOT lot. Its big slashes of neon paint display a nostalgia for the Spencer’s Gifts and “Miami Vice” vibe of the 1980s.
Gaia’s own piece feels intentionally fragmented, but there is a gravity holding the disparate elements—the head of the Greek god Hermes, a tiger, the new Angelos Law Center at UB, the desert, and an Arraber—together. But their coolest features are the small, life-sized humans spread across the walls in random and sparse groupings.
Zbiok’s piece on the side of the Metro Gallery also feels disjointed. And, while the grassy landscape that extends over the wall should serve to hold the piece together, it feels far more fragmentary than Gaia’s. On the far right of the wall there’s a guy with his hands up and above that, a large hand, out of scale with everything else, holding a bag with the Nike logo on it and in the middle some kind of Easter Island-looking head and bonelike gray rocks. It just feels purposeless, like when a band adds all of these extra parts to a song for no reason. Which is a shame because the tree in the upper left, and the spot where it hits the sky, is one of the coolest things in OWB2, taking on the tone of the pine trees in Cezanne’s Mont Saint-Victoire paintings.
A number of the murals are portraits, including Ozmo’s portrait of a black man in getup that seems like a cross between Elizabethan and the Guardian Angels of the 1980s and ECB’s gray portrait of a Korean man, the late father of the owner of the Seoul Rice Cake Factory, whose T.J. Eckleberg eyes contribute to the weird grimy-future “Blade Runner” vibe of the neighborhood. Betsy Casañas has a large mother-and-child piece, where the rich brown tone of their skin and the searing black of their hair and eyes are offset by her green shirt and a gorgeously patterned white-and-red background. Ernest Shaw’s earnest piece features a three-headed portrait of James Baldwin, Nina Simone, and Malcolm X. Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s ‘Stop Telling Women to Smile’ piece uses three portraits of women to make the much-needed point that “Harassing women does not prove your masculinity.” LNY's magical-realist portrait of a young girl with a baseball hat and braids, on the brick-paved alley of Federal Street, is one of the best pieces in OWB2. El Decertor’s portrait at first seems like just another colorful picture with an overly bright background, but upon closer inspection, it turns out that he makes spectacular use of the various architectural planes of the wall to give depth to a face, while also including some interesting bits, such as a series of birds reflecting fragments of the man’s face, in a way that is at first invisible and then unavoidable, blending the pictorial and the abstract.
Other painters like Jessie Unterhalter and Katey Truhn embrace a formalist abstraction that borders on the purely decorative—except, again, for the very small touches, such as the paper-cliplike loop of white lines stretching across a gray circle in the right corner. Both D’Metrius Rice (full disclosure: I own two of his paintings and have a personal relationship with Rice) and Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez are well-known in the city’s gallery scene, but neither is able to bring quite the power to this larger-scale urban work.
That failure, paired with the success of small details in Gaia’s work or Zbiok’s, even when the pieces may not cohere, shows precisely how difficult it is to work in such a scale in a public environment (though the project is largely done, the final piece by Amy Sherald, which will not be completed until the fall on the west side of the J. Van Story building, will dwarf all the rest). The pieces that work best both blend with and enhance the world in which they are situated. Logan Hicks’ highly romantic and decorative picture of a man holding a woman draped across his arms with a subtle floral-patterned background is stunning as you round the corner. And Nanook’s picture of a boy with a crown of bees surrounded by flowers and the dramatic blue sky, a small row house in the distance, becomes part of the environment. An actual garden grows up in the lot beside the painting, and its sky reached, the day I saw it, into the real sky and blended with it seamlessly. It was stunning and it was, in that moment, what is best about Open Walls—painting as a reflection of the world and a promise of something better.
Jessie Unterhalter and Katey Truhn