Sorting Differences and Finding Common Ground on Abandoned Howard Street

Quick Overview: This text is taken from a larger research project about 5 constituencies that had been identified along Howard Street in Baltimore City. The main focus of my studies (and in this post) is on street artists as catalysts for change.

“Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

City streets are inherently public spaces. As the connections between all that the city has to offer, streets evolve into realms of social interaction. It doesn’t matter if you drive, walk, or take the bus — the streets belong to everyone. Who, then, ought we seek out when a street’s ability to function needs to be addressed? The list of constituents along the one mile stretch of Howard Street that cuts through downtown Baltimore could be never-ending. Members from all of these groups should have considerable interest in Howard Street, yet few are as active as they could be. This is especially true on the blocks between Mulberry and Monument Streets. On the surface, it seems as if no one is doing anything. But if you pull back the curtains, you’ll discover a plethora of operators. Busy at work on Howard Street we see the Maryland Transit Administration’s (MTA) Light Rail, Tree Baltimore and other environmental agencies, Baltimore’s planning initiatives and the Baltimore Development Corporation, the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation, and a creative group of artists. These five groups, each with their own objectives, carry the future of Howard Street.

Figure 1: Portrait of Harry Weinberg on Howard Street, by Gaia

Illegal Art: An Unlikely Act Restores Vivacity in the Streets

The image next to the Mayfair looks recalcitrant, much like the man it portrays.  It was created by the internationally recognized street artist, Gaia, and is one of many portraits from the artist’s Legacy Series. Gaia has been creating art in Baltimore’s streets since he began attending the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). He has expressed that the intent behind these pieces was to “reinscribe[sic] the figures who have shaped our landscape back onto the surface of their legacy, the infrastructure and polices that we have inherited and must navigate”(Gaia, Legacy Series, Baltimore n.d.). Affixed to the facade of a forgotten building, the rendering of Weinberg looks out onto a parking lot of the opposite block. That entire square block was once one of Weinberg’s holdings, and the fact that it’s now a parking lot serves as testament to what little Weinberg had done for Baltimore’s revitalization. Gaia’s artwork is a reminder of this disastrous tale.

Gaia is not alone in his efforts, of course; numerous artists are dipping their brushes in Howard Street’s colorful palette. Local artist Nanook, another MICA student, has some of his bright paintings on display here. Additionally, a great deal of the remaining work on Howard Street can be attributed to a third, perhaps lesser-known, artist: Nether. There are even more, still, but these three seem to be most active and most passionate. I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to speak with all three of these artists individually. Prior to meeting them, I believed that street artists, whether they realize it or not, are motivators for transformation. As it turns out, each artist recognized this role and felt a connection to it in one way or another.  What they’ve had to say about street art’s potential has been entirely on par with my own theory.

Gaia, Nanook, and Nether are not the real names of these three artists. Because the work they are creating is unauthorized and technically illegal, each have chosen an alias to protect their identities. Though no one would recognize them by their given names, their street art names have earned them much recognition. The inability to take personal credit for their praiseworthy art, however, does not stop these three from creating pieces that have immeasurable impact on public spaces.

Many would agree that public murals have the ability to reinvigorate communities. Few, however, would currently consider illegal street art to have that same capacity for change. Comparing murals to street art, Gaia remarks, “One is an asset, one is a little social experiment”(Gaia 2012). Street art takes a very different approach in addressing social issues. Though both are creative forms of expression which impact a space and influence the public, street art is an improvised and more natural manifestation of social issues. Nanook explained it best when he described the quick and spontaneous nature of street art as a “glitch inside peoples’ everyday surroundings”(Nanook 2012). Personally, what I love most about street art is that it’s not as static as a legally authorized mural. Commissioned murals are always limited by a number of public and political preferences, as well as the requests made by those who have endorsed them. Street art, on the other hand, is pure freedom of expression. It lacks the “filter,” as Gaia calls it, that is imposed by whomever approves a mural. Of course, as Gaia bluntly remarks, “Street art really has potential, but there is so much bullshit – that’s what’s awesome: no one can control what occurs illegally.” Additionally, street art dares to go where no mural ever would. Street art touches on the less popular subjects of urban life; such as white flight, racial discrimination, and the city’s failures. On Howard Street, for example, Nanook has a wheat paste titled Washington, and Lady Godiva Falling from her Raven [Figure 2]. In lore, Lady Godiva is always depicted as a white, feminine woman; while Washington is known as being a strong white male. This piece actually speaks to Lady Godiva and Washington’s absence; for together, they signify white flight and the loss of feminine elements within the city(Nanook 2012). Showing both the good and the bad, street art demonstrates hope- we can change society by promoting art.

Figure 2: Washington, and Lady Godiva Falling from her Raven by Nanook

Of course, there is a difference between street art and graffiti. In the last decade, pop culture figures like Shepard Fairey and Banksy have drawn attention to street art’s relevance. Society has suddenly begun to view street art through a more appreciative lens, leading to increased public awareness and acceptance. Some people, however, often members from older generations, still find it challenging to differentiate between street art and graffiti; and so clarification is in order. As far as city officials are concerned, there is no difference; in either case, the unsolicited modification of a building’s facade is considered a signifier of blight. Yet anyone can see- from the message and tone to the level of artistic investment- that the characteristics of these separate creations are quite distinct. Graffiti on an abandon building is often equated with crime and can sometimes, especially in cases of gang graffiti, be considered threatening. Whereas traditional graffiti is usually a territorial claim to space or authority, street art is more about being socially invigorating. It is my belief that street art can potentially be considered an asset to a community. During our informal interview held in his studio, Gaia clarified the intent of street art “as an alternative means for use of inert space.” He proceeded with his animated conversation, pausing briefly to remind me of something fundamental: “But it’s illegal. And that’s what’s important.”

The artists don’t get much grief from Baltimore police. Rather than concern themselves with the fact that these artist are breaking the law, the cops have been more apprehensive about the artists’ safety in a rough neighborhood, or even admiring of their talent.[3] It is the community members who are actually more probing. Although both Gaia and Nanook say they’ve received only positive feedback in Baltimore, Gaia did note that a passerby will on occasion be inquisitive. “People try to call attention to the illegality of it,” Gaia tells me, “…but there are these horrible buildings that are a cancer to the neighborhood and they’ve accepted that.”  In many areas, Baltimore residents have just grown to accept the poor condition of such structures. In time, they stop caring altogether. To Gaia, street art “challenges the view of private property” by calling attention to the tolerated misfortunes of a forgotten building. In his view, “when the landlord gives up their responsibility to uphold that building, they’ve given up their right to how that space should be visualized”(Gaia 2012). In some circumstances, these artistic endeavors do prompt action. After putting up work in East Baltimore for some time, Nanook has begun to see progress. Abandoned buildings are now being demolished and renovated. But unlike Gaia, who sees a direct correlation between his art and social change, Nanook believes that although street art can enliven a community, it’s not necessarily an incubus for that change(Nanook 2012). In his view, the decaying parts of Baltimore are simply the neighborhoods to which these artists are first drawn. When the vicious real estate cycle defines impoverished neighborhoods, illegal street art is an opportunity to fill the voids created by vacant properties that would otherwise sit fallow. As Gaia explains, street art gives people a sense of “having volition — you could even say control — of their surroundings” (qtd. in Michaud 2012).

In my interviews with both Gaia and Nanook, I posed a chicken-or-the-egg sort of question. “When you’re compelled to create a new piece,” I asked, “what comes first: the idea or the location?” More often than not, the concept comes first. But in certain situations, a space invites participation. I soon discovered that an extensive amount of consideration precedes what the public ultimately sees.

In Baltimore, artists are free to create their work on buildings without a permit so long as they have permission from the owner. But how are these rules to be interpreted when it comes to abandoned and vacant buildings- what “owner” grants permission in these instances? These abandoned spaces are often the ones who most need artistic intervention. Street artists create their work for many reasons. Of the three artists, Nether seems the most concerned with creating art which inspires change. On the surface, Nether uses his art as a temporary means to beautify his city. On an underlying layer, he sees the figures in his ever-increasing number of wheat-pastes as a growing “army of revolutionaries”(Nether 2012). He believes more individuals ought to fight, at whatever cost, for what they believe, as he does with his art.[4] To this degree, Nether uses his wheat pastes as a form of artistic protest against the February 26th killing of the Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin. Since the tragic event, Nether has been pasting  images of a hooded figure throughout the City [Figure 3]- affixing empty Skittles wrappers to the side to represent Trayvon, who was shot while walking home after purchasing a bag of skittles and an iced tea(STREET ART: For Trayvon, by Nether 2012). While the concepts behind each of Nether’s individual image may be difficult to grasp along, his message becomes clear and strong when his creations are viewed as a whole.

Nether piece protesting the February death of Trayvon Martin

All three artists have emphasized the fact that, out of respect for property owners, they target neglected or unoccupied buildings. For this reason, Howard Street and Baltimore City, with plentiful vacant buildings, make for the perfect street art canvas. This environment also gives art the ability to address the issue of city vacancies. Both Gaia and Nanook were raised in other states, while Nether is a Baltimore native. Ashamed that one sixth of the houses in his city are vacant, Nether has no moral problem with the illegality of his work as he takes the vacancy problem into his own hands “in a civil and disobedient manner”(Nether 2012). Gaia and Nanook especially seem to understand real estate and development on levels that many others don’t, which explains why there are indeed times when putting work on an occupied building is appropriately justified.[5] With around 16,000 vacant buildings in Baltimore, “there’s no reason to hit an occupied building,” explains Nanook. “When you do, it’s on buildings that belong to large organizations who sit on properties forever and never develop”(Nanook 2012). By putting work on buildings like these, artists call the attention of the landowner back to the site. If only artists like Gaia and Nanook had been in Baltimore back when Weinberg was still alive and in control of all that neglected property, imagine how things might have changed.

More than just street artists, both Gaia and Nanook have experience at the other end of the public art spectrum as well. In 2009, Gaia had contributed to The Wynwood Walls mural project in Miami, Florida. More recently, both Gaia and Nanook, who have been known to join artistic forces, had participated in the Living Walls Mural Projects of Albany, New York and of Atlanta, Georgia. Their prolific mural creations continue to address the cultural, social, and political issues of cities, and there’s no indication they’re about to stop. In fact, as I write this essay, they are hard at work organizing a tremendous art undertaking right here in Baltimore. A short distance from the downtown district, Howard Street reaches Station North, where Gaia is curating the Open Walls Baltimore (OWB) initiative. Together with Nanook and the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, Gaia has called upon some of the most widely recognized street artists in the world, from as far away as Italy, for the purpose of creating 22 murals(Open Walls Baltimore n.d.). An art project of this magnitude is unprecedented in Baltimore.  For years, the City has been investing in this neighborhood, yet it wasn’t until the mural installations had begun in these last 3 months that any real change has been visible. With experience creating both street art and murals, Gaia and Nanook appreciate the advantages of each and are able to offer a more valuable perspective on public art. When the OWB project concludes, the artists will go back to creating street art until another grand opportunity arises. Their work may diminish in scale, formality, or publicity- but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from speaking with these artists, it’s that the integrity of their art’s purpose will never fade.

“My murals won’t last forever, the building it’s on won’t last forever. We think of the urban landscape as this static urban monster, but buildings are always coming up and going down and graffiti is a part of that.” Gaia, qtd. in Michaud 2012.

While murals can have a far reaching influence, there isn’t always the money for such a grand venture. Open Walls Baltimore is a rare opportunity.  It’s extremely difficult for a neighborhood to initiate a mural project like this until the government is ready for an area to change. If the government isn’t ready, it’s unlikely that a neighborhood can gather the funds for a mural project on their own(Gaia 2012). Street art can satisfy the need for public art when murals are not an option. Arlene Goldbard, author of New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development, praises the creativity and resourcefulness that artists employ as they nevertheless produce something amazing despite lack of money(McCabe 2012). When the world is changing, you can rely on the artists to enthusiastically pioneer the way.

As artistic protest, street art reminds “the Man that the space belongs to the people as well as to him”(Jamieson 2009). From Nether and Gaia’s wheat-pasted creations to Nanook’s vibrant illustrations, Howard Street exists as an artistic expression. These creators, along with the contributions of many others, have animated the empty space and transformed it into a very raw and human art gallery- curated not by any one person, rather by the present social conditions of Baltimore City. Slowly and quietly, street art has invaded communities, changed perceptions, and encouraged the formation of critical opinions among city dwellers. Street art is more genuine than a mural, more vivid than graffiti, and more visionary than a master plan. It can bring something to a space that wasn’t already there. It has been quite encouraging to discover that the three street artists with whom I’ve spoken have many of the same hopes for neighborhoods as do urban planners. Legal or not, their work along Howard Street is at the very least sympathetic to the surrounding urban conditions and an inspiration for all.


Although the 400 to 600 blocks of Howard Street may initially seem lifeless, they are not devoid of life. In actuality, an eclectic assortment of players are at work. Each are interrelated in one way or another, and additional agencies are pulled into their interactions that shape public spaces. Unfortunately, there has been little cooperation between them.  One group’s wishes interfere with the another group’s ability to achieve their own goals. Perhaps once these constituents understand that they each exist as part of a larger whole, their interactions will be more fruitful. Entities like the MTA and the Baltimore Development Corporation should plan together and coordinate their visions while the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation can use their power to offer assistance. Furthermore, the non-traditional collectives formed by wildlife and artists offer visionary remedies to revive public space. The inherent advantages of nature will be the spark that generates revitalization. Nature, or rather, its stewards, have the ability to transform these blocks,  while there is an opportunity for the artistic entities to take hold along Howard Street. Open Walls Baltimore started as a Station North initiative, but its vision would certainly hold merit on Howard’s Streets architectural canvases. And the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), for example, whose students and alumni (Gaia and Nanook, et al) have already claimed their creative rights on Howard as street artists, has nothing to lose by investing here. With collaboration, Howard Street  can potentially become an easily accessible mecca for social interaction where individual expression is encouraged and desired.


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[1] Baltimore’s WestSide is an area bounded by the State Center area to the North, Charles Street to the East, Pratt Street to the South and, Martin Luther King Boulevard to the West

[2] Kathy Robertson spoke with the Seminar in Urban Design I students on April 17, 2012 to discuss the Baltimore Development Corporation’s initiative to revitalize the Western district of Baltimore, a 100 square block area bounded by Charles St., Pratt St., Martin Luther King Blvd. and the State Center complex.

[3] It’s important to note that each of these three artists is a young Caucasian. Though unfortunate, the police would likely not be so pardoning had the artists been of other racial backgrounds.

[4] It seems worthwhile mentioning that a wise woman (my mother) has recently commended my generation for not being deceived by the “bullshit.” A subject worthy of its own analysis, the radical outlook of younger generations seems to be reshaping society into something more open and honest.

[5] One key word, used by both Gaia and Nanook, was “respect.” These artists are always mindful of the work they are creating, and especially so on buildings that may have owners, but are abandoned. There’s an equilibrium of respect that must be maintained. This principle is what steers them towards or away from certain neighborhoods. Take, for example, Charles Village: Nanook would never put his art in Charles Village, not only because of the affluence there but also because the residents themselves respect the buildings.