A neighborhood in the East Coast city of Baltimore is getting a facelift. Artists from across the United States and around the world are painting murals on buildings, some of which have been vacant for years.
Freddy Sam is putting the finishing touches on a large mural with an elephant at one end and mountain in the center.
“This is Table Mountain from back home,” he says. “I wanted to bring some nature to Baltimore.”
Sam came from South Africa to participate in the program known as Open Walls. He’s painted murals across the world. “I get to learn about the world through painting art. If I came here as a tourist, I would never have seen Baltimore the way I saw it painting a mural.”
In fact, few tourists see this neighborhood, known as Station North. It fell on hard luck decades ago. But 10 years ago, it was designated an arts and entertainment district.
Ben Stone, executive director of the Station North district, hopes the murals will attract more visitors. “Penn Station, our main train station, is in the district, so it's an easy area to get to, and this is another reason to come here.”
Station North is also home to artists like Gaia. He’s curating Open Walls. “I wanted to choose people that weren’t necessarily the brightest stars, but were doing remarkable work throughout the world.”
Like Interesni Kazki, a duo from Ukraine. Their mural features a fantasy walled city painted in bright yellow, red and orange. Individually the artists are known as Oleksii Bordusov and Vladimir Manzhos.
“We started from traditional graffiti, letters,” Manzhos says. But he adds, they eventually wanted to paint more. “It is not interesting to paint just letters, because you cannot tell more than just your name.”
Other participants in Open Walls, including Freddy Sam, also got started as graffiti artists. But Gaia began his career putting up original posters on abandoned buildings. The detailed black-and-white prints feature animals.
The mural he painted for Open Walls depicts a pigeon cradled in a giant left hand. Around the corner of the building is the right hand, with three fingers curled and the index finger stroking the bird’s breast.
“I love it,” says William, a lifelong resident of Station North, who raises pigeons. “It also has a sense of peace. And if you look at the other side, it has a sense of giving.”
Ultimately, more than 20 murals will color the neighborhood. The government is financing the program along with a privately held bank in a bid to revive the neighborhood.
“We are also looking to increase investment in the area,” says Stone. “That could be people wanting to buy homes here, rent homes here, open businesses here.”
Vander Pearson opened his flower shop in Station North 30 years ago. He hopes new people will move in.
"I try to keep different things in, statues and different little flowers and things people would like to buy and plant in their back yard or hang on their porch,” he says.
But there are plenty of vacant homes alongside ones that have been renovated.
"The city, for better or for worse, is a canvas, because we have 45,000 abandoned buildings in this metropolitan area,” says Gaia. “Development can be swift or slow."
In the meantime, the murals are bringing attention to a neighborhood that has been overlooked but is focused on a brighter future.