Gaia. Open Walls Baltimore. Interview with the artist

Curator of Open Walls Baltimore – Gaia – is a Baltimore-based street artist, who is receiving significant museum showings and critical recognition. He has been creating large-scale murals worldwide to engage the community where he works in a dialogue by using historical and sociological references to these neighborhoods (wiki).

Tell me about street art in Baltimore.

Ostensibly, Baltimore is one of the most incredible landscapes to produce work in the world because we have so much vacant property and so many people who are so open to artworks in an informal fashion. So we’ve got a tragic side of why it’s great to do street art here – there is so much vacant property – and a really beautiful side is that there is so many resilient communities that have incredible narratives to be able to communicate with and hopefully convey and also collaborate amongst. So those two aspects are what make this such an incredible city.

Essentially, I started doing work here eight years ago illegally and predominantly illegally until around Open Walls Baltimore had developed a practice that was both international-scope and local insofar that I was doing a bunch of interventions around town. And then after that, Open Walls Baltimore really sort of heralded a new approach in Baltimore City to mural making; one that was a little bit more fluid, and hopefully aesthetically and formally pushing the boundaries as well. But people like Nether have carried that baton to continue doing other projects that have more “tooth” in their criticism, if you will. So he did a project called The Slumlord Project where we actually targeted really terrible landlords and did walls illegally on their property exposing their real estate holdings.

By drawing the attention of neighbors to abandoned and vacant properties and giving pertinent ownership information to take action on, 17 artists are spray painting and wheat-pasting in a D.I.Y. educational program that aims to renew the social contract in communities hard hit by crumbling real estate, crime, and diminished opportunity. – Huffpost arts & culture.


Baltimore, MD, 2015

And that was not necessarily whatsoever a spinoff in any way, but was very much just the momentum of mural making has really grown out here, and that’s been really wonderful to see. There have been other projects that have occurred after Open Walls Baltimore, sort of in response, and so the culture is growing and burgeoning.

What were the difficulties in organizing it?

Difficulties in organizing is just making as many people feel included as possible; outreach is something that is difficult only in so far that it’s hard to get a hold of all the various people that constitute a community. And making sure that they feel as if their voice is heard. So there is always morework to be done on that side of things. Otherwise, logistically, it’s obviously difficult to pull off a mural project.  But ultimately the people that were implementing the project – myself and Nanook, Ben, and Rebecca – were able to do it remarkably swimmingly. The process did go very swimmingly once we were actually implementing it because all the moving parts trusted one another, and everyone was extremely good at what they were doing. The real difficulty was only in terms of outreach – making people feel comfortable – but in fact logistically implementing the project, it was fine.


Richmond, VA, 2013

You came from the street, right? You started with graffiti and now you are doing such a great, huge and very detailed murals. How it happened?

I personally have never been a purist, and never had the privilege to entertain purity, considering I come from a place of privilege, and have a lot to prove, but also have a lot of ambition to move forward into other forms of expression beyond mural making and image making. So I started in the streets out of curiosity and an interest, and have maintained that practice. Alongside or in parallel to other means of intervening and producing form. So I personally have never been a dogmatic street artist or graffiti writer. In fact, I never really came from a place of graffiti per se, I did very much start only doing poster in the street, and I’ve always been having to deal with the opposition of graffiti writers to people such as myself. And it’s really the most difficult aspect of growing up in that fashion is navigating all of that criticism and all of that potential violence. So I respect graffiti and the amazing risks that people take, and I think it’s a great pulse in terms of telling what is actually the fiscal landscape of a community – can they afford to remove graffiti? It tells you things about the actual economics of a place. But also does in fact provide a nice portrait of the freedom of expression. Especially in a place like Buenos Aires. If normal people feel that they can intervene easily in their space, they do feel like they have some sort of ownership or authorship within the visualization of that space. In America it’s very different. So you get mostly people who are willing to take very intense risks are the ones that are speaking.

Gaia, mural, Washington DC, smith Washington, DC, 2012

I just started pushing myself to making murals, and of course once you start making murals, you have to consider place and how important the place is. So my practice has always been place-based and founded in history. And so I continue to reiterate those interests in every single one of my projects. I think the only way you can transition over to mural making is if you are just not an idiot. If you think that everything has to be this way and it can’t be any other way then you’re probably going to be stuck in that way and hopefully you are happy in that way. I don’t mean to denigrate any one who is comfortable in sticking to one form. What I do mean is that generally those that are uncomfortable venturing into other means of expression tend to be extremely critical of mural making. So if they didn’t F- with me I wouldn’t F- with them, but I get F-d with a lot, so they can go F- themselves.


Richmond, VA, 2013

Gaia developed an interest in the evolution of urban neighborhoods. He began incorporating portraits of influential, and sometimes controversial urban developers: people such as Nelson Rockefeller, Robert Moses, Henry Flagler, James Rouse, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. These men built highways, skyscrapers and housing projects. Collectively and irrevocably, they altered our perception of public space. For this reason, Gaia layered them into his urban murals. – wiki.

Gaia, Miami, Art Basel. Wynwood, Flagler

Miami, Wynwood Walls, 2011.
The mural includes wheat-pasted posters of photos Gaia shot of different historic buildings in Overtown

Henry Morrison Flagler was an American industrialist and a founder of Standard Oil. He was also a key figure in the development of the Atlantic coast of Florida and founder of what became the Florida East Coast Railway. He is known as the father of both Miami and Palm Beach, Florida. Henry Flagler established Overtown (a neighborhood located about 15 blocks away from Miami Wynwood) on the west side of the freight tracks for his black workers.


Open Walls Baltimore murals, 2015

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