Street Art Gives Voice to the Community on Low-Income Housing
Wall Hunters — a public arts project — is playing a catalytic role in shaping the urban Baltimore landscape. Young muralists are creating popular street art with a message. Joined at the hip with a savvy housing organizer and a website that packs a wallop, the Wall Hunters Slumlord Project generated enough political heat in 2013 that it led to the demolition of dilapidated vacant homes in the city’s grittiest neighborhoods. This project may have helped speed up the city’s commitment to addressing some of the worst urban blight in America. Art is shaping urban design.
Street art has seen a resurgence of practitioners since Banksy became a household name. Banksy’s work won acclaim in the UK for its sharp social commentary. Originally vilified as a pariah and sought by the police (he remains elusive), Banksy gave popular expression to societal grievances. His street art caught fire throughout the UK, Europe, and the Middle East, as well as most recently during a one-month residency in New York City. A meteoric breakout of public art followed on Banksy’s heels, including Shepard Fairey’s now well-known Obama poster that helped nurture activism for the president’s election in 2008. In 2011, gallerist Jeffrey Deitch, then director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, curated a show of street artists from around the world that drew record attendance to the museum. And when Trayvon Martin was killed, Nether, a street artist in Baltimore, stenciled onto the side of a run-down building the image of an empty hoodie with a Skittles packet, which became ubiquitous throughout the George Zimmerman trial. The blank black space where the face should have been evoked both the tragic loss of this young man and the unseeing eye of prejudice that sees blackness before it does the humanity of a person. It was in this context, at the intersection of art and social justice, that Nether’s next idea — using public art to draw attention to Baltimore’s vacant neighborhood buildings — took hold.
Baltimore is among the few East Coast cities where entire city blocks upon blocks of homes sit vacant and uninhabitable, often putting residents who live next to these structures at risk for serious public health and safety hazards. The official city count of blighted buildings puts the number at 16,000, although the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University put the number above 40,000. (The discrepancy may be explained by the method the city uses to count buildings: it relies on vacant building notices.)
Nether reached out to internationally known street artists, asking them if they would work with him to wheatpaste or paint murals on the walls of these vacant buildings — one in each of Baltimore’s fourteen city council districts — so that people would take notice. He wanted to draw attention to the vacant buildings and petition the city for a remedy. Fifteen street artists participated from as far away as Venezuela, although most artists came from a half-dozen cities across the United States.
The murals are strong and catch the eye instantly. On some of these desolate streets they are the only things that really stand out. But it is not just the imagery and colorful art that capture public attention. At the bottom of each mural Nether has pasted a QR (Quick Response) code that, when scanned, takes the reader to slumlordwatch.wordpress.com. In turn, this website identifies the building owners by name, and provides their contact information along with the names of the elected officials in whose districts the buildings sit.
The research for the website was done by Carol Ott, a housing advocate who talked to neighborhood residents and scoured public records to identify the slumlords. The website contains no explicit message, but a call to action is implied. And the website has fast become well known. In its first two months it received 50,000 hits. The landlords began to roar, and the city and artists began responding.
Each of the murals depicts narratives about housing and slumlords, Baltimore and dreams, those of the artists and the community. The first mural to go up was of a large purple, black, and gold raven. The Raven is the Baltimore football’s team mascot, and perhaps not coincidentally, it is also the name of a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, formerly a Baltimore resident.
In the mural the Raven is building a nest — wood slats gripped in its claws, caution tape hanging from its beak. It symbolizes a determination to rebuild from rubble. Nether tells the story of how he found the mural’s QR code ripped down several days after it went up. And after replacing the QR code, demolition signs quickly followed. Within two weeks the building was demolished!
The headline of a local blog’s story about the project read: “Art aimed to Shame”and an ABC 2 News headline read: “Illegal street art calls out owners of Baltimore’s vacant properties.”
Community residents who were interviewed for news stories about the demolition lamented that these properties needed to be torn down. They argued that the former homes could have been renovated had the landlords or city taken action years earlier, before or even shortly after the buildings were condemned. But their eventual deterioration left the structures too shaky to rehabilitate. Moreover, these “vacants” created problems related to the structural integrity of adjacent properties.
Political tension surrounding the Wall Hunters project heightened with the creation of a mural by a street artist known as Gaia. He described his mural as depicting the “crown of King Tut with the visage replaced by a cotton field. . . . A normal suburban home with eagle wings floats above the words Exodus in Hebrew and English. Rather than vilify an individual who could fairly be labeled a slumlord, this piece visualizes the connection between the Jewish and African American experience with migration.”
The Baltimore Sun, the city’s primary daily newspaper, then reported that the alleged landlord (as revealed through the QR code) of that building denied he owned it. Moreover, the landlord’s spokesman accused the street artist of using anti-Semitic images to perpetuate the idea that Jews were slumlords who oppress African Americans.
Gaia and the Slumlord Project immediately challenged the denial of ownership, and described the landlord’s attack as politically motivated — designed to detract attention from his responsibilities for the building. According to Wall Hunters, this particular landlord was well known, having been cited for maintaining 500 lead-paint-contaminated houses in their inventory.
Importantly, the weekly City Paper also challenged the landlord’s claim by running a comprehensive story detailing their own independent research that may put to rest any assertion by the landlord that the properties were not in his control.
The public press attention served Wall Hunters well. It compelled the city to respond, not to the details of the interaction between the rival papers but rather to the overarching housing problem and the city’s failure to deal with the thousands of uninhabitable buildings that line city blocks.
Combining art with old-fashioned shoe leather organizing, the Slumlord Project then distributed flyers asking residents to report on dangerous properties in their community. And with each new mural that went up, more press ensued.
Shortly after the dustup involving the artist Gaia, the community, the landlord, and the press, a new Baltimore Sun headline appeared: “City to raze hundreds of vacant houses in stepped-up plan.” The article reported that the city had increased its $2.5 million demolition budget to $22 million to “tear down 1,500 abandoned houses.”
This was just the beginning. In two months Wall Hunters had achieved much with their first project. Their work led directly to the demolition of two crumbling buildings, and it appeared to substantially influence the city’s decision to raze many more. They built alliances with community residents to identify homes in need of renovation that could become the basis for future collaboration. Indeed, one community resident, Shawnee, began to introduce the Wall Hunters to her neighbors and was mobilizing them to file complaints about their surrounding buildings.
Wall Hunters bridges a historic gap between community organizers working on an issue and artists working separately in the same space. These two groupings have more often than not worked on parallel tracks rather than together. There is nothing inherently wrong with that except in situations where one group could maximize its impact if it were joined with the other.
Bringing activists and artists together is no small feat. Visual artists in general tend to be less conventional in their approach to issue work. Organizations, on the other hand, are usually more hidebound and tied to tried-and-true methods. They are limited by tight IRS constraints on their activities and pay particular attention to conforming to a set of rules that govern their work. That has sometimes led to these organizations becoming frustrated with many artists who by their nature tend to be nonconformist. On the other hand, visual artists tend to be frustrated with organizations that rarely think outside the box.
Through their practice Wall Hunters is succeeding in bridging the art world with both the organizing community and with residents. These street artists work collaboratively with a housing advocate and their community partners to achieve their goals. It is particularly interesting to note that Nether, a twenty-something male, liberal street artist, and Carol Ott, a midforties Republican who created the Slumlord Watch website and does the research for it, are the driving forces behind this unique collaboration. Their unlikely alliance forged over their common interest has helped shape its work.
Social media are also proving to be effective ways for Wall Hunters to accomplish its goals. The QR code and website are critical tools for pressuring the city and landlords to take action. With more than 50,000 initial hits to the Slumlord Project website, Wall Hunters was able to deepen the engagement of a large number of people who otherwise would have seen the murals but would have had no other immediate mechanism to look further. Even this minimal amount of activity generated by the murals — scanning the QR Code — works because the pressure on slumlords and the city to address the issues associated with those properties grows greater with each person who sees the names of the building owners. And even without any organized campaign to lobby elected officials in those districts, these pols feel the heat by being associated with the targeted properties.
Nether recently incorporated Wall Hunters into a 501(c)(3) organization so that he can continue to bring together artists and activists working on social justice issues.
The next phase of the Wall Hunters project is a documentary that Tarek Turkey and Julia Pitch are producing about their work. The documentary brings viewers into direct dialogue with community residents in the neighborhoods where the artists made the murals. It features interviews with the artists, housing advocate Carol Ott, Wall Hunters founder Nether, academics, and public officials. This penetrating short film will enable viewers to see Baltimore’s neighborhoods through the eyes of the camera and by doing so virtually catapults them into the story. To see their trailer go to www.wallhunters.org/#!film/c1l27.