Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 8, 2021

If these walls could talk.... - An array of colorful local murals gives Baltimore neighborhoods an unlikely luster

By ANGELA CHEN | December 8, 2005

They may appear on your way to the grocery store, or when you lose your way downtown. They also thrive in the most dangerous of neighborhoods. Yet they are a source of comfort and inspiration to those who live around them. They are the murals of Baltimore City.

Few Hopkins students have found cause to venture into the neighborhoods enhanced by the Baltimore Mural Program, nor know of the long-established organization that endeavors to beautify the city as well as foster dialogue between community organizations. And the concept of public art tends to convey such images as decorated crabs and sky-high figures in warped metal.

Urban murals serve many roles, besides that of the site-specific piece of contemporary public art. From the works of Diego Rivera to those of the Works Progress Administration, mural art has marked the nation's history as moving, unifying and sometimes propagandist.

The Baltimore Mural Program has completed around 120 murals since its inception in 1974. Subjects have ranged from African American heroes, local residents, scenes of children, gardens and trains, to trompe l'oeil designs mimicking architectural elements. Personal accounts from community leaders, muralists and city officials attest to the program's benefits.

Besides covering eyesores such as graffiti and bare walls left by individually demolished row houses, murals prevent graffiti from reappearing. It is widely known throughout the mural community that graffiti artists rarely mark murals, even when painted over areas previously tagged by them. This is out of respect for fellow artists, with whom they feel a common bond.

Not all murals successfully deter vandalism. At least three BMP-commissioned murals contain spray paint marks, including one mural found along the Gwynn Falls Parkway bike trail. Vandals have scrawled "toys," a street term that insults one's work as mediocre, pretentious or fake -- a "toy mural." Graffiti thus provides a new mode and language for art criticism.

The commissioned murals also exemplify dedication to the concept of neighborhood beautification. The "Wall of Pride," located at Carey and Cumberland Streets, is such an example. Its artist, Pontella Mason, a longtime contributor to the mural program, took a year to complete the work and had to continuously warm his paint on butane burners to keep it from freezing. The mural memorializes such African American heroes as Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X and Langston Hughes.

Mural site maintenance is another important effect of mural presence. "Greetings from SoWeBo" on 1317 W. Baltimore St., completed this past summer, celebrates the culture of southwest Baltimore. What was once an empty, barren lot is a veritable garden of trees, grass and bushes, complimenting the colorful mural. Resources for organic beautification are provided by such organizations as the Bon Secours of Maryland Foundation, a nonprofit organization which compliments community-driven revitalization efforts. Even decades after completion, mural sites remain clean and well kept by members of surrounding neighborhoods. The sacred spots command respect, and sometimes result in lush gardens, fostering communal pride.

The resounding social effects of public art extend past beautification, for the process of creating a mural unites community members and forces communication between local and city groups. Usually, a community approaches the program, which in turn provides local muralists' portfolios for the community to choose. Through a process that can entail enflamed deliberation and many meetings, community members collaborate with the artist to help shape and agree on the resulting murals' style and subject. "Greetings from SoWeBo" was designed by MICA student Erin Ellis and was created by MICA's Community Arts Partnerships Program.

Sometimes the dialogue fostered by the mural creation process can be the most therapeutic. Archie Veale's mural of a boy planting a tree (400 N. Pulaski St.) was created amidst a tense situation involving city planning officials. The work is painted on the cross-section of a discontinued section of overpass that threatened to demolish and build a freeway over almost an entire neighborhood.

In 1994, many homes had already been destroyed by the project; when the demolition halted temporarily, the builders gave permission for a mural to be built on the front of the partially built overpass, though warned that it would be buried in concrete in a few years. The overpass was never built and the freeway plans were scrapped. One can still see the metal rods jutting from the bit of overpass, now overgrown with vegetation.

Mural unveiling ceremonies also serve to unite Baltimoreans, and mostly occur in the summer, when the weather allows for mural completion. All parties involved congregate to celebrate the murals, share stories of the process, and give thanks to the organizations who helped. One such event celebrating the completion of the "Greektown Mural" amassed and united (and reunited) several dozen Baltimoreans at an authentic Greek lunch hosted by one of the muralists, also the restaurant's co-owner. The warmest of moods filled the air as members of different racial, organizational and neighborhood groups, who normally would never have reason to come in contact with each other, bonded over the occasion.

Longtime Greektown resident Xenefon Kohilas explained that murals are so large and wide that they take up one's periphery and makes you focus on a picture, even if for a moment -- thus having a calming effect. He hoped the Greektown mural will bring peace to his community.

As Dr. Matthew Crenson of the Hopkins political science department noted: "People connect with a mural because it represents something the community members aspire to. It's both a reflection and a mechanism." I have discovered the plethora of endeavoring Baltimoreans who daily fight for the beautification and betterment of their communities, heading such seemingly small, but very important, causes such as neighborhood recycling systems and farmer's markets. Such efforts are both motivated and represented by the murals.

The main question is whether urban murals truly nudge neighborhoods towards community improvement or act to affirm that that a community is on its way up -- or similarly, if they are merely indicators that neighborhoods have reached comfortably elevated economic levels, as other mural research, such as the University of Pennsylvania's Social Impact of the Arts report, suggests.

The program's website can be found at: http://207.114.6.204/arts/muralprogram.aspx, along with a list of murals and their addresses.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The News-Letter.

News-Letter Special Editions