In a dirt lot off Canton's Boston Street, Charles Armstrong is perched in front of a sign that says, "Homeless Artist With Diabetes Please Help." He grips a black Sharpie and begins sketching the outline of what looks like a yin and yang. His grocery cart, full of wood and plastic jugs, displays his sign along with a portfolio of whimsical art, including a three-headed, long-snouted lion of some sort whose head seems to protrude from the picture. Black garbage bags filled with golf-ball-size stones and ropes hold the cart and a dusty, duct-taped tent in place.
"My ex-girlfriend left me for somebody else in California so I just been traveling," Armstrong says. "I had to for survival. I [eventually] want to buy land, acres of land," he says. "That's how Donald Trump does it. [For now] I'll stay here . . . Until I get blessed or something."
About five minutes into his sketch, a woman in a Silver Chrysler 300 pulls into the lot. Armstrong seems to know her.
"I hope it's a donation," he says, focusing on drawing seven-and eight-pointed geometric shapes around the yin-yang. He gets up and hustles over to her car.
"Do you have plenty of shoes and clothes?" the woman asks. Armstrong says he does. She's holding a large clear plastic bag packed with cold-weather items such as wool socks, gloves, sweat clothes, and new shoes. "Take this as an emergency kit," she says as she hands the bag to Armstrong. But Armstrong doesn't really need an emergency kit. He's equipped for the day's brisk air in a dingy black and yellow fleece vest over a blue sweatshirt with worn, gray sweatpants. These are tucked into shin-high heavy black socks along with gray Nike running shoes—they're worn but far from shabby.
"You got enough blankets?" the woman asks Armstrong as he walks away. "I got enough blankets. Thank you, beautiful," he says, returning to his folding chair. He sits and resumes tracing over his Sharpie lines.
"Somebody being nice, you know," he says. "It's not nothing I need. I need heat. I go through this all the time, the people I want to stop, never stop. The people who do stop . . ." He pauses and dips his head for a few seconds, raises his head and reaches for a plastic bag of multicolored markers.
He starts working on a different piece: psychedelic in tone, with cheerful fish and sea horses in a joyful environment of color. This is juxtaposed with as a cartoonish grim reaper in a red-and-black-striped hooded robe with a scythe that was dipped into the lake of blood he seems to be standing upon.
He exhibits his art for the eastbound traffic. Each piece costs $40. All of his work is composed on white corrugated plastic boards of about two-and-a-half feet per side, a spectrum of permanent markers, and an occasional border of silver duct tape.
His materials are "good for the weather," he says. "People try to give me paper and cardboard [but] I can't use that. I'm homeless. I need more sophisticated materials."
At 15, Charles Armstrong never imagined he would be nearly three thousand miles from his hometown of Compton, California, drawing for his life.
"I got a doctorate in survival," he says. "When I was 15 [art] was fun. As time went on, it became a job. I got to do this because I got to eat."
He has been drawing since he was very young, imitating pictures in Ebony and Jet magazines. "I'm mean on the pencil. I can sketch you with a pencil, with my smearing, and use an eraser. When I get through with you, you will swear to god you took a picture in black and white."
Devotion to the creative process was his single constant amid an environment of "drugs, guns, gang bangers and racist police" in Compton. "I never seen my dad," he says, also mentioning a domineering mother who interfered in his relationships.
"My girlfriend left me," he says. The heartbreak was too much, so he moved straight out of Compton at 18.
"I paid flatbed trucks to travel," he says. He carted all the possessions he could carry from one end of the country to the other. He started in New York City in the late '90s, but left in part due to a decrease in tolerance for street artists without sales licenses after Sept. 11, 2001. He traveled from there to several parts of Pennsylvania and finally arrived in Baltimore about two years ago.
He initially stayed in Baltimore shelters in hopes of assistance with building stability in his life, but won't go back. "Hell no! They treat men like kids over there, man. They treat you like a fuckin' dog! I see it like this: Animal shelters are [actually] better than the shelters they got for us in downtown Baltimore City. I'm serious! First of all, animals get to stay in all day long in the heat. They need to seriously put all the homeless folks in a house." He believes the stability of a permanent home would make finding a job and addressing personal affairs much easier.
"I'll go . . . to the tent, fuck this!" he says. He moved out on his own, living in the street intentionally, with purpose, he says.
Initially he was a mobile artist, displaying his works on a grocery cart, which he would move throughout the city, making himself visible to as many people and neighborhoods as possible. "I did that to get noticed," he says, describing his rudimentary marketing scheme.
But he would inadvertently stumble into "Satan's shit hole," his name for the run-down and crime-ridden areas of Baltimore. "There is too much violence, drugs, and drug dealers [who] rob homeless people."
"In another 20 years, downtown Baltimore City ain't going to be nothing, but two big buildings. One building is going to be a nut house and the other big building is going to be a massive prison. That's the way I see it. This world needs more heart, you know what I'm saying? More caring, more mercy."
He decided to stick to one location—a large patch of dirt and wind, usually dedicated to huge freight trucks, one of which parks near him by the intersection of Boston and Panca streets. He moved here because it was safe. Across the road is a Royal Farms and about half a mile to the west is a shopping center that includes a Michaels arts and crafts store.
It seemed safe but last Labor Day at 4:30 a.m. two men came and cut the top of his tent with a knife, pepper-sprayed Armstrong in the eyes, and threatened to stab him to death unless he gave up his valuables. This was only the latest robbery. He's been robbed plenty of times before.
"I feel like everyone in . . . Baltimore City [can] rob people," he says. "Everything sucks to me."
Armstrong refuses to leave this location. "I will stay here as long as God lets me stay here." He now sleeps in an undisclosed location nearby where he feels safer. (He leaves his cart full of paintings and his tent at its Boston Street location each night.)
Along with his safety, he's concerned about winter. He has cleverly figured out how to create homemade Sterno, a flammable jelly or paste used in camping stoves. Armstrong mixes rubbing alcohol and wood and cardboard in an aluminum can to create a paste that will burn for hours. "I need heat . . . That's why I gotta do more pictures man. This winter goin' [to] be [more] brutal that last winter!"
These burdens bring more urgency and focus. "Work, work, work! I be doing my pictures. I don't sleep like everybody else. I pass out!" he says. Armstrong hopes to have a gallery represent him in the future. In five years, he hopes to "never have a want, never have a need no more. That's why I'm working so hard."
He rises from his seat and attaches his picture to an empty part of his tent—half of a psychedelic sun and moon connected in the middle in yin-yang fashion. Each side contrasts the other: The bright yellow and orange of the sun energizes the left while a morose blue hues the right. A cheerful smile transcends the conflicting moods with a bird and butterflies, both mid-arrival among a vibrant garden of violet and blue flowers. His drawing is done—potentially another $40 in his pocket.