The Load of Fun graffiti alley isn't visible from the intersection of North Avenue and Howard Street, which is gray and beige and blighted and grim. Nearby is a nondescript motel and a check-cashing service with a barred entrance.
But when visitors walk north on Howard Street and turn onto the quirkily named 19 1/2 Street, suddenly, there the alley is. People abruptly stop walking and even lean back slightly. They draw in their chins and swallow their breaths.
It's almost like stepping into an ancient walled European city or an outdoor urban cathedral. Rows of small white Italian lights are strung overhead, the better to illuminate the walls, which are covered to a height of about 10 feet with hundreds of vibrantly colored abstract paintings. Stylized letters are superimposed atop one another - cherry "R's" and lemon "M's," grape "P's" and orange "A's," tumbled together like hard candy in a dish.
"Every day it's different," says Sherwin Mark, owner of the Load of Fun performance space and gallery, whose walls form both sides of the L-shaped alley. "When I come to work, I park my car and walk around to the alley to see what's happened since yesterday. The result is beautifully ornate and jewel-like, with a stained-glass feel."
This alley behind 120 W. North Ave. is the only place in Baltimore where graffiti artists can ply their trade without risking arrest. On any given day, visitors might include a pair of elderly tourists clutching postcards and looking for the work of artist Dave Hupp, who has exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution. Or a professor from the Maryland Institute College of Art, leading students on a tour.
Another time, veteran graffiti artist Omar Grady, 36, can be found patiently teaching spraying techniques to two 14-year-old boys who have sketched their designs into large black notebooks.
"There's a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it, and these kids study it as if it were calculus," says Karly Fae Hansen, a former Load of Fun intern and the alley's unofficial archivist.
The alley - one of those places that is quintessentially Baltimore - has existed in its present incarnation for about two years. The fact that it exists at all is a minor miracle, due in equal parts to Mark's and Hansen's determination, to city officials' willingness to bend rules and to the graffiti artists themselves, who ensure that the alley maintains a family atmosphere.
The walls contain no obscenities, gang slogans, ethnic slurs or graphic depictions of sex organs. There aren't even any stray food wrappers.
"There used to be a lot of trash in the alley: used needles, human waste and spent condoms," says Hansen, who has compiled a photographic history of the alley on the Load of Fun Web site ( loadoffun.net) and in a group on the photo-sharing site Flickr ( flickr.com/groups/612452@N22).
"The alley wasn't dangerous, but it wasn't pleasant. Then the graffiti artists came in. Now, the most offensive thing you'll find is a plastic chair that has three Gummi bears on the seat."
Graffiti drawing is dangerous, illegal and punishable by a jail term. Anyone who has spray-painted freight trains or underpasses for any length of time tells stories about being chased and, in some cases, shot at. Homeowners laboring to salvage borderline neighborhoods understandably become enraged when scrawled slogans deface their garages and local grocery store.
The spray-painters themselves distinguish between gang members, who write on walls to recruit members and stake out their territory, and the muralists for whom graffiti is a form of self-expression.
A 39-year-old writer known as "Adam Stab," whose artistic proficiency has placed him at the top of the local graffiti community, puts it like this: "I'm on the side of every cop when it comes to protecting private owners and individuals from attack. That's not what graffiti is supposed to be about."
"Stab," Hupp and Grady (who writes under the name "Verse") adhere to an unwritten code: Graffiti has no place on churches, private homes, small businesses and public monuments. Anything else, in their view - though not in the view of government officials - is fair game.
When Mark purchased Load of Fun in 2005, the building exterior was scribbled with crude lettering. "It was black and white, mostly. Nothing very intricate."
He commissioned a few murals for the back of his building. Graffiti began to appear over the murals, but it was nothing like the old stuff. The new pieces were colorful, artistically sophisticated and obviously crafted with care.
"I'd watch people work," Mark says. "They all carry around these notebooks with hundreds of pages of designs. There are six or seven different styles of script. They'll work for hours to make this edge more rounded, that edge more square. As much as some people are into lacrosse, these guys are into their different [spray can] caps and the width of the spray."