The Message-Maker: On the Ground with Baltimore Street Artist GAIA
Internationally acclaimed artist uses painting to reach his city.
The Baltimore city streets are appropriately known for being unforgiving—drugs run rampant, crime is high—but the range of unique ways that people live their lives in the city is extraordinary. There are the infamous 12 O’Clock Boys, for instance, a group of ATV riders who tear through local streets and highways performing stunts atop their four-wheelers. Though living dangerously, their skills are authentic—the 12 O’Clock referring to the ultimate achievement of a completely vertical wheelie. Or there are the arabbers, a group of mostly older African American men who hawk fruit from horse-drawn carts. And yet, as different as these individual sets of people may be, they all comprise one colorful cast of characters that call this city home, inspiring and informing the generations to come.
Street artist Gaia, who moved from Manhattan to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art eight years ago, and simply never left sees the perils, but also the inherent, well, charm of the Charm City streets. “It doesn’t have much industry besides biomedical,” he says, settled in his studio in the still rough Oliver neighborhood. “Besides that we have a booming drug economy. There’s a million interesting sociological phenomenon happening in Baltimore: people fighting for their homes, fighting against displacement, fighting against massive upheaval. It’s something that I strive to keep a pulse on, and if I can lend my services as a painter and a message-maker, to be an advocate for those causes, I do.”
For the most part, Gaia reflects what he sees on Baltimore’s streets onto the walls of the city, often cleverly weaving in portraits of the urban developers who have shaped the way we think about cities and public space—people like Robert Moses and Henry Flagler populate his murals. Baltimore, with its crumbling, post-industrial malaise, Gaia seems to be saying, is the result of civic development, for better or for worse. “No street artist is truly dedicated to the streets unless they also try and understand the different aspects of urban planning, and how we navigate and shape our cities,” says Gaia.
And the established art world has taken notice of this critical tact. Yet, despite showings in the gallery world and producing commissioned murals, the potentially felonious activity of wheat pasting his prints onto buildings necessitates that Gaia remains anonymous. But through this obscurity, his intimately unpretentious relationship with the city’s inhabitants also allows him to become absorbed into the fabric of the city, and put his art to tangible use. “When I’m able to collaborate with a local advocacy group that’s already done a lot of legwork, and I can use my international reach to heighten awareness for whatever their cause is to simultaneously derive content from their activism, and create something more contemplative, that’s when it’s most successful,” Gaia says. “I become a vessel for other people. I’m using painting as a way to reach people.”
Gaia bears witness to Baltimore from the ground—his studio, he says, is “right at the nexus of the hood and the arts district.” From Greenmount Avenue, his view looks out onto the storied Greenmount Cemetery, the oldest graveyard in the city, as well as a mural he painted for a local bar that he frequents on Friday nights, which is owned by a Nigerian immigrant. It’s that sort of cultural assortment that inspires Gaia every day and helped inform his visual love letter to Baltimore. He conceived of a mural to communicate his myriad feelings towards the city, combining a raven—that ubiquitous representative bird of Baltimore—with the print derived from a linoleum block that Gaia had originally made for the Edgar Allan Poe House. In the background of the mural, downtown buildings collide with those of the Baltimore neighborhoods. And, of course, he has added a cherry blossom, a flower that is perhaps more often associated with the city’s neighbor, Washington, D.C., but is just as prevalent in Baltimore. Altogether, Gaia has created something equal parts gritty, real, historic, and beautiful—which is exactly how he sees Baltimore.
Photo Courtesy of Edward Winter