“I want to do more with the abandoned buildings here,”… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
If you want to experience the work of street artist Gaia in its full, scruffy glory, see it in the wild.
Drive south down North Collington Avenue, past Biddle and Eager and Chase. You will despair of spotting anything fresh in one blighted block after another. But slow down as you near Ashland. On the corner of a string of boarded-up rowhouses is an image you register with pleasure and relief: a portrait of a carrier pigeon as a natural creature with an almost unnatural poise. It's a jolting and precise piece of poster art. Mysterious and witty, it carries a kinetic charge. This pigeon appears ready to take wing. What's holding it back? Could it be the patch of wing that someone has torn off the wall?
Gaia succeeds at pulling his viewers into neglected areas. Actually, he lives in one, sharing half the top floor of a dilapidated warehouse off Greenmount with seven or eight people (the number varies according to how many brothers or friends crash their for a season). There's a metaphor behind his use of a carrier pigeon as a recurring image. Standing on his fire-escape staircase, he's eager to explain it.
He says he uses the carrier pigeon only partly to introduce a live creature into moribund neighborhoods. "It's a carrier pigeon: it's trained by man," he explains. Gaia wants to prod his viewers into realizing that people create urban environments — sometimes for better but mostly, these days, for worse .
He takes the name of Gaia, the Greek earth goddess, to protect himself from being charged with vandalism. What he does is technically illegal, but authorities have never threatened him in Baltimore. In other cities, he says, "I have talked to a lot of policemen, but I have managed to assuage them." His disarming manner may have something to do with that. He wears a mask in photographs to preserve his anonymity. But when you see him with his mask off, sporting a cap and a beat-up jersey, he's as open, scampish, approachable and humorous as the savviest, most hopeful member of "The Bad News Bears."
He speaks with a combination of youthful slang and intellectual fervor; after all, he graduated from Maryland Institute College of Art just last week. He uses "chill" as an adjective and "crushed" as a verb meaning "conquered." He notes that Americans resist the homogenization of culture and architecture in European social democracies because "we just don't jam that way. We celebrate what's 'authentic' and 'individual' to a fault — to a fault, because we end up marketing it."
Although his reputation has spread around the city, the country and the world, he's an artist in his youth. Engaging and exuberant — not pretentious or self-conscious — he knows what he's doing, and he loves it.
"I'm really targeting the notion that you can plan a city," Gaia says. "Earlier in our history, a lot of cities had a much slower, more organic development, and it made for a robust mixed usage, and for a street scene that was much more lively."
Making prints from linoleum blocks, blowing them up to various poster sizes and putting them on buildings with wheat paste, Gaia seems to act like a mad scientist firing cells, catalyzing new life in urban corridors without pretending to know exactly where it's going. But he's crazy like a fox — my vote for Gaia's next seductive animal figure.
Passers-by could rip his work down in whole or part, and other street artists could replace it. The city could tear the buildings down in a week, a month or a day. What matters to him is prodding conversations on actual city streets that continue on the virtual streets of the Internet, where Gaia's artistic cousins on every continent track each other's work.
If a viewer doesn't immediately get the nuance of that carrier pigeon, that's "chill" with this ebullient young artist. What's important is igniting a response.
One of his eeriest poster images, a mystical bear with all-seeing eyes, has all but disappeared from Greenmount Avenue. Down the street, a wall full of graffiti tags has lasted for a decade. Gaia savors the irony: "You'd think the thing that looks more spontaneous would disappear."
But graffiti was always about marking a public space and appropriating it. Street art is about sharing it and debating its proper use. He smiles at the statement that the bear's eyes survive — once you spot them, they follow you down the street and pierce through the back of your head as you pass, like the eyes on the poster in "The Great Gatsby" Gaia also notes, with delight, that a mile north on Greenmount, a rooster-man on the side of the entryway to a walled-up store survives in "very pristine" form.