The City as Canvas

Muralism is at the intersection of street art and public art in which artists create large, sanctioned works on walls or sides of buildings that immediately engage and sometimes transform the space and surroundings. Contemporary murals can also be a tool for space revitalization or for redesigning our cities as open-air, democratized art spaces. Inviting artists to create works in neglected, abandoned or overlooked spaces can reactivate and transform them with images that are beautiful, decorative, funny and sometimes even thought-provoking. Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program is the largest public art program in the US, and the city has taken a preservative approach to these works of art, adding another dimension to the relationship between urban re-planning and street art.

Open Walls Baltimore

Open Walls Baltimore was a street art project in the Station North Arts & Entertainment District of Baltimore, USA which saw the creation of over twenty murals from April - May 2012. Curated by Baltimore-based artist, Gaia, local and international street artists were invited to create "an outdoor exhibition of extraordinary murals that enlivens public spaces, stimulates community revitalization and national dialogue, and attracts visitors and investors to Station North."

Though some might argue that the works of artists in such spaces can be a precursor to gentrification (as a process of change, and less of immediate displacement), I thought it would be interesting to know what artists and people in these spaces think. Two artists who participated in these events share their thoughts and experience.



Erik T. Burke aka OverUnder is a friend and talented street artist from the US who travels around the country and the world creating works.

"Open Walls Baltimore was my third experience participating in a mural painting conference that had an underlying theme of urban revitalization. Terms like 'urban beautification', 'neighborhood revitalization' and 'gentrification' get tossed around frequently with these events, and I think it's much too complicated to be boiled down to something akin to real-estate rhetoric. I do feel that it makes a huge impact on returning life to spaces that are in a state of architecture purgatory.

Most cities feel that when a space is too seedy or is experiencing economic difficulties that the best solution is to demolish and start afresh. I think this tabula rasa technique is completely wrong and a huge waste of resources. In economically difficult times we must act more creatively and perhaps view our cities through a cosmetic lens instead of from the cock pit of a wrecking ball.

With the increasing acceptance of street art, especially muralism, it seems many cities are taking advantage of the increasing talent out there. I was extremely honored to be a part of Open Walls as well as Living Walls, and still receive e-mails from strangers who were were impacted by the work I created. That is why I love the street as the canvas! If nothing else, it's an indication to me that what we are doing has purpose and meaning.

Creating my wall was so fulfilling on a community level. When I arrived, I had no agenda. Gaia introduced me to the owners of the building, and we just talked about the neighborhood. Shortly into the conversation we began talking about the transformation of the neighborhood and who were the beacons of the neighborhood in the past. A man named Dennis Livingston was mentioned and after I left the meeting I got back to Gaia's and began researching him. I had a bit of difficulty digging up information, but I learned he was an advocate of affordable housing and trained under-privileged residents of Greenmount West in carpentry, gardening, and improving the energy-efficiency of their homes. He had also very recently passed away.


I had so much difficulty finding information on such a monumental person I figured I should make him monumental so he could be found. I met again with the owners of the building and they gave me the program from his funeral. Reading further about Dennis was like reading an unpublished Jack Keruac manuscript! I used all the information I could glean on him to illustrate the portrait section of his mural. The remainder of the wall shows him reaching around a trompe l'oiel building to appear as if he is embracing the neighborhood.

And the great part of this mural was that the neighborhood embraced back. Which means a lot because Greenmount West is a tough neighborhood! So many people came back to say 'thank you' or to tell me about how Mr. Dennis had positively effected their life. With all the larger problems in their lives, it was a big step for a lot of those people to reflect like that, and I feel very lucky to be a part of that process.

Does it matter which artist is creating what and where?

I used to feel like it mattered who was doing it because it matters to me. I follow the work of so many people, some close friends, some I may never meet, and when I come across their work personally it is so impactful. Like, "holy shit, (so and so) was here!" But then I realized that the majority of people witnessing it on the street have no idea the hierarchy or the importance of the artist making the work. They just see it purely for its aesthetic and conceptual qualities.

However, the other side of this seemingly three-sided coin is that street art exists in a large way on the Internet due to its ephemeral nature. And the people checking the blogs and artist sites are generally street art enthusiasts. So now it comes back to the importance of who does it.

But does it matter where they do it? I find as the teeter totter of street art begins to weigh heavier on the mural side that location begins to lose importance. The increasing trend of painting bigger walls begins to shift the gaze of artists using the public space in a more creative manner. Thankfully there is so much diversity in street art and we still have artists like Dan Witz and Ox among others who are truly thinking critically about our public space while simultaneously making beautiful works of art."

Interesni Kazki


Ukranian street art duo, Interesni Kazi, also shared their views.

"Our work for Open Walls Baltimore was about outer and inner revitalization. It consisted of two parts: the left part of the mural shows the human mind transforming, and the right part shows the environment transforming. These two parts point to two different directions: to the East and to the West. Eastern and the Western world views are totally different. Eastern ideology is directed towards the inside and Western is more about outer transformation. The most important thing is to find a harmony, and to strike a balance between these two different ways."


"Most of the reactions by locals were totally positive. People said: 'Hey yo, my man! Good job!', 'Hey bro, that's what I'm talking about!', 'Looks nice!', 'Hell yeah!', or 'How much do they pay you?, give me some work, I can also paint', 'Nice! What does it mean?'

We like to paint big, complicated artworks. And we paint on big walls. Big walls are not really possible to paint on without permission, so the question is not about sanctioned or unsanctioned art. Well-done artwork gives us more satisfaction than illegal, fast painting."

Can artists revitalize or transform neighborhoods with their works?

"Yes. We can see it through the practice of various artists, and from Wynwood Walls in Miami, for example. Huge works of art can transform unfavorable neighborhoods into galleries or outdoor museums. Artworks on the street can increase energetic vibrations, which positively influence people's feelings, mood etc."

All photographs by Martha Cooper
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