The death of Freddie Gray and the ensuing unrest in Baltimore inspired a lot of local artists: Rapper Young Moose released an anthemic song and video, ‘No SunShine’; Lafayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes, whose show at The Windup Space was delayed because of the curfew, played new songs ‘Blues for Freddie Gray’ and ‘Curfew’ at the rescheduled gig; and filmmaker Theo Anthony put together “Peace In The Absence Of War” (see page 28).
But probably no artist’s work has been more visible in recent days than the mural that Baltimore street artist Nether, 25, just completed in Sandtown, near where Gray was taken into custody by police. It featured a giant portrait of Gray, flanked on one side by civil rights heroes, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and on the other side by recent protesters marching in response to Gray’s death.
Nether has been doing community-based street art since 2010. He started with wheat-paste work before getting into paint-based murals in 2013, when he became involved with activist Carol Ott and the Wall Hunters project.
Nether and local activists came together last week to plant a garden in front of the mural, which appears in Moose’s ‘No SunShine’ video and has appeared widely in local and national media and social media. (J.M. Giordano)
City Paper: How did you develop the concept for the mural?
Nether: We, [Gray’s best friend] Brandon Ross and I developed the concept. Initially the idea was Freddie in the middle and something that showed the Baltimore protesting. We started planning it two days after he died. Originally [we thought about] the wall across the street, just thinking of a quick strike just to draw attention to the event. I met Brandon at the candle light vigil and was talking to [community organizer] Kinji Scott and Tessa Hill-Aston of the NAACP and I pretty much spread the idea around, gauged interest. Brandon secured the wall, talked to the neighborhood, showed my work around. Checked out about permits. He really took charge.
CP: How was the imagery chosen?
N: We liked the idea of Freddie in the middle really big with the protesters behind him. Then the uprising happened. We used an image from the Selma march. We made a compilation of vigil photographs. We were saying that it’s the same mountaintop fought over for decades. I’m not from Sandtown, but being from Baltimore, I was incredibly proud of how the neighborhood, led by the family, stood up the same way MLK did. I wanted to show that connection in the mural.
CP: Has the family been down there?
N: Brandon has brought everyone who was friends and family with Freddie down to see it. His mom has not. She’s been keeping to herself. Painting pieces like this is incredibly empowering. I know him now through his friends. It’s incredible. He was my age and hearing about what happened makes me so mad.
CP: Who’s in the mural besides Freddie?
N: Rosa Parks, MLK, Thurgood Marshall, Coretta Scott King are on one side, the other side is Freddie’s friends and family who are leading the protests.
A lot of my personal experience led to this mural. In high school we took a civil rights tour of the south. I walked across the Pettus Bridge in Selma. I was indoctrinated with the civil rights issue. My parents are both actively engaged in Baltimore urban issues.
CP: Was there someone who influenced you to take up social activism?
N: John Roemer, who helped desegregate the White Coffee Pot Jr. on Franklin and Howard, was all about not just protesting, but thinking of ways to strategically throw shit at the fan, so to speak. Stir shit up.
CP: Any complaints about the mural?
N: The only complaints to received were from white MICA kids. I’m a white artist, so maybe I’m more approachable because of the color of my skin. Maybe they’re still in critique mode from MICA. I always refer them to some of the people in the neighborhood. They haven’t so far taken me up on it.
CP: People both on Facebook and on the street have complained about the American flags in the mural. Why did you choose to add them to the piece?
N: I felt that we needed to reclaim the American flag. America created this problem. Its politics are to blame. How people stood up in both the civil rights era and in Sandtown is the most American way to stand up. It’s about reclaiming the flag. It was taken away from us. I’m conflicted in my view of the American flag. This is an American issue. Rather than complain about how people outside the community should perceive this murals, you should come down and do something. When we were digging holes, we found crack vials about two feet down. I’m enraged because now people outside are paying attention. We need to turn the attention into something positive. Don’t just do a ghetto tour and turn around. Everything that’s happened here is all our faults. When you make a new Harbor Point, you’re taking a way from something else. It’s divestment in the rest of the city. This is when Americans give up on Americans.
CP: We’ve seen a lot of international media and onlookers at the mural. Has anyone you met stuck out to you?
N: I’ve met a lot of people from Ferguson while I’ve been painting, and being in Baltimore it’s hard to gauge how the nation views this. They say that Baltimore took it to the next level. The result of that was the world got to see how complicated this issue is. All of Baltimore is on same page right now. Solidarity at its finest.
CP: So what’s next?
N: Brandon and I are trying to paint murals all over Sandtown-Winchester on the walls that people are offering. We want to do something more radical like calling out issues like failing education, prisons, and all the stuff that brought eyes to Baltimore. We want [to] call out what happens when a society fails its people. We want to bring in the older muralists to join the effort and confront the issues plaguing the neighborhood.