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Story: Devin Hamberger
Multimedia: Ashley Ward

Four giant, blacked-out hands spell out one word on different walls across the city. Together, they have a special meaning that brings hope, positivity, and, of course, love, to Baltimore.

The Baltimore Love Project was an initiative started in 2008 by artist Michael Owen, a graduate from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Fourteen walls across the city are currently home to Owen’s image of four silhouetted hands that spell out the word love. The idea for the project was inspired by other works of art he was creating at the time.

“I developed the love drawing in my sketch book one day, and I automatically thought that it would look good as a mural,” Owen said.

Owen pitched the idea for the Love Project to some people, and realized that it was going to take more manpower than he originally thought in order to complete the project the way he intended. He partnered up with prior colleague Scott Burkholder, who became the Executive Director for the project.

The hands in the murals are intended to show action and the people are doing things. Owen said that everyone can relate to silhouetted hands because when the detail is removed, it makes them about people as a whole.

“The project is for everyone, and this is indicated by the image itself if you look at it closely,” Burkholder said. “The hands are silhouetted so they can belong to anyone, and anything that identifies us is removed. There is no class, no age, no race, no gender, and no ethnicity to the image; we all cast black shadows. In that way, the project belongs to no one, but everyone at the same time,” he said.

The locations of the murals were chosen largely for geographic reasons. However, Owen said that he wanted to be democratic about it and spread the art as evenly as possible over the city into different types of neighborhoods.

“Michael drew a map of the city with a 4×5 grid over it, creating 20 points that would serve as the location for a mural,” he said.  “The idea is to cover the entire city with love, and to try to make it so every citizen lives within a mile or two from a mural.”

The love murals can be seen in diverse locations throughout the city including Mt. Washington, Highlandtown, Waverly, Dundalk, Hampden, Downtown, and Broadway East.

The Love Project takes you beyond “Smalltimore,” which Burkholder defined as the “touristy areas” like Fells Point, the Inner Harbor, and other traditional epicenters, to show the diversity of what Baltimore truly is.

“I think that it means different things for different people,” Owen said. “Most people see it, at the very least, a positive force in the city. With that comes a sense of hope for a lot of people. It gives them the hope that they can do something more loving and change the city in some way on their own,” he said.

The project’s mission is to connect disparate parts of Baltimore, as well as to inspire loving action and aesthetically changing public spaces with a simple piece of street art.

This aesthetic change is apparent on 36th Street in Hampden where the giant hands serve as a centerpiece on The Avenue.

“The space was empty for so long and was an eyesore with all the peeling paint,” said Henri Leite, co-owner of Bikram Yoga. The mural happens to be right above his studio, and it has changed its aesthetics for the better.

“Now, with the mural, it portrays what we are trying to pass on to our students. We are only trying to better their lives,” Leite said.

Leite and his wife, Sarah, opened Bikram Yoga almost eight years ago. They have not documented any gain of monetary business after the mural was painted a year ago in October, but other gains have been noticed by the couple as a result.

“It gives an impression of positivity to our students, and it gives people walking by an idea of what we are trying to do through yoga. We are trying to lessen people’s suffering,” Leite said.

Burkholder and Owen realize that the citizens of Baltimore are not going to understand their initiative overnight, but at first the two thought that painting the murals was going to be a three-month process.

“We thought that we were creating this iconic image that would change the city and that everyone would love it, but that wasn’t the reality,” Burkholder said. “When you want a city to know what you are doing it takes much longer than that, and this is where we learned the significance of marketing.”

The Baltimore Love Project has almost 5,000 Facebook likes, as well as over 1,000 Twitter followers. Owen and Burkholder have found social media to be a helpful tool in communicating their message to a wide audience.

“That’s what we were looking for in the first place, the fact that people are responding and connecting to the murals and saying that it is something they can connect to in the city is wonderful,” Owen said.

The mission of the project is not to get people to notice the murals, but to get people to think about love and to promote social change.

“It’s hard to measure the metrics of it,” Owen said. “The impact the art has on people is not as powerful as, say, feeding people, but it adds to their quality of life. The positive image impacts them in a way that moves them in the right direction,” he said.

Owen intends to paint six more murals to complete the project, equaling a total of 20 murals that will cover the city with love. The locations are pending approval, and some are still under consideration. He and Burkholder hope to complete the project by the end of this year.

The murals are ultimately intended to help people feel connected to their community, as well as the city of Baltimore as a whole.

“When you are in a place that you are proud to call home, your whole life changes,” Burkholder said.

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