His pictures of RIPs tell sad story of city killings

March 01, 2001|By Michael Olesker

IN PETER BARRY'S East Baltimore loft, one floor above the city's mayhem, photographic slides flash on a screen. Rest in Peace, they say. Ghetto Hero, they say. Barry has hundreds of them, pictures of words spray-painted on walls, each a testament to killing, and to people's pitiful attempts to memorialize the suddenly departed.

"Aesthetically, I like them," says Barry. He is 55, with long, unkempt hair and glasses and a goatee that make him look a little like a pale and bony Ho Chi Minh. Barry follows the modern body counts and their postscripts. The city's homicide tabulation for 2001 reaches 44 - seven more than a year ago at this time, when we thought we were getting a grip on it - and Barry barely keeps up with the killing.

He stands on street corners with his camera and takes pictures of the messages scrawled on buildings to remember the dead. He finds them all over town. "Soldiers From the Cradle to the Grave," says one. "All We Got Is Us - Thug Love," says another. "Rest In Peace, Little Tony," says a third.

Sometimes tombstones are drawn next to the message; sometimes, the outline of pistols. Each becomes a kind of journalism, a reflection of the morning's newspaper headline: "Teen killed outside Arena; Youth is 14th victim of fatal shootings in city over 10 days."

Barry says he has 280 photographs - roughly, an average year's homicide count in the city. But the numbers grow - of homicides, and of Barry's pictures of the eulogies painted on walls.

"This is Barclay and 27th," he says, pointing to graffiti that reads "R.I.P. L.C." "Actually, a lot of these shots, they've been painted over already. But I take pictures because I don't want 'em to disappear. Also, I take 'em to stay sane. We're talking about 3,000 people dead over the last 10 years. It's too easy for us to disassociate ourselves. The media brings us the story, and we're removed from it. I don't think we should do that so easily."

Barry is originally from New York, but he's lived here since 1984. He supports himself with some photographic projects but also collects government disability money. Ten years ago, he says, he fell off a motorcycle and broke his spine. As he moves about his loft, he limps.

"In New York," he says, "graffiti became a nuisance and an art. People were painting entire subway cars. My mother still lives there. She's 90. She says graffiti's terrible. I say, look, two people carve their initials in a tree. They've debased that life form. But they're also attempting to declare something permanent. And I think that's what these spray paintings are in Baltimore. Somebody has died, but something should remain."

Barry talks of collaborating on a book with someone to put his photographs into some psychological perspective - and maybe to describe the mood on city streets where life can end so abruptly, and so senselessly.

"R.I.P. Nate," says the writing on a wall flashing in Barry's loft. "R.I.P. White Face," says another. "Only God Can Judge Us," says a third. Next to the last message are six tombstones.

"Old York Road above 41st Street," says Barry.

He knows each location and sometimes matches it with the memory of a story in the daily newspaper, or the name of a victim mentioned on the television news and then forgotten with the beginning of the evening's next story.

Barry sometimes runs risks as he goes about his work. One afternoon, he says, he was confronted by a West Baltimore man who didn't want him taking pictures.

"I'm recording the RIPs," Barry said.

"You're gonna be one of 'em," the man said.

"Well, brother ... ," Barry started to say.

"Don't call me `brother,'" the man said.

"There's a lot of dead people in town," Barry said.

"You're gonna be one of 'em," the man said.

Sometimes, he says, curious children will follow him around as he snaps pictures. One memorial message, now flashing on the screen in Barry's loft, reads: "Nine Out of Ten Use 'Em." The outline of a gun is painted next to the words. What is the effect on children who see such a message? What is the effect on their parents?

"Ever had a gun pointed at you?" Barry asks. "It's like resolving your entire life in a microsecond. But the thing that stays with you, it's the eyes behind the weapon."

The thing that also stays are words scrawled on so many city walls now - "people's attempts to do something permanent in the midst of so much impermanence," says Barry - and his hundreds of photographs, each a reminder of the city's enduring pathology.

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