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These Walls Can Talk

Looking back at Baltimore’s long history of street murals

Photo: J.M. Giordano, License: N/A

J.M. Giordano

A commuter waits at a stop sign at the corner of West Lafayette Avenue and North Stricker Street in front of Pontella Mason’s 1994 mural featuring Egyptian and African-American history themes.


In the fall of 1973, Baltimore’s iconic mayor William Donald Schaefer had a “bright” idea. The same man who would pull the Inner Harbor from the sludge of industry to become a tourist destination a decade later wanted to do something about the city’s walls. They were “dull and drab,” he told The Sun at the time. So the “Do It Now” mayor helped secure a $10,000 grant, Sears donated the paint, and the mission to brighten up Baltimore’s neighborhoods was on.

City Paper got together with Open Walls organizer and contemporary street artist Gaia and early aughts-era muralist Ernest Shaw Jr., and took a driving tour through a number of the city’s neighborhoods, looking for Baltimore’s original murals.

On many blocks, the old-school murals function like Biblical friezes in a church, telling stories through illustration. Lyle Kissack and Gerald Ross’ mural on North Patterson Park Avenue offers up a tribute to black steelworkers, for instance, and Pontella Mason’s work on North Stricker Street presents an odyssey that chronicles the African-American experience from the pharaoh Im-Ho-Tep all the way to black American heroes like band leader Duke Ellington. Others memorialize historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, while many more—such as Tom Miller’s mural at the corner of East North Avenue and Harford Road—simply illuminate our dark corners with explosions of color.

The legacy of Schaefer’s idea, which really took off in the ’80s and ’90s, lives on with city-sanctioned street-art projects such as Open Walls and Articulate Baltimore, which both decorate and call attention to some of the city’s more run-down areas.

Still, Gaia says that “the old and new worlds of the mural tradition rarely intersect,” noting that “Open Walls has shown that it is possible, on an extremely tight budget, to produce 23 massive pieces in the blink of an eye, while tapping into an international energy that extends beyond the limits of the city and becomes apart of global conversation,” while admitting that “the speed of execution can render many communities mute to this process. Residents feel as if they were not adequately consulted, or even that the pieces speak to some imagined future audience.”

On the other hand, many of the old-school mural projects were criticized, according to Gaia, as “art-making by consensus that does little more than produce visual platitudes, appease provincial politics, and ignore underlying conflict.”

If organizations like Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, or non-sanctioned projects like Wall Hunters, can bring these two strands of the mural tradition together, we may end up with something that goes far beyond Mayor Schaefer’s dreams.

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