At 307 W. Baltimore St, behind four oversized oak doors, the room is filled with ladders leaning on walls, spray cans piled in corners, beer cans and pizza boxes scattered around and a stack of used paint buckets clustered in the middle.
Sitting on a black stage off to the side is Mike Wake, a 39-year-old Baltimore graffiti artist. He’s wearing a plaid newsboy cap, a black shirt and dark jeans. He’s chiming in a discussion between the two lead curators for the show. One is Nether, who is precariously perched on a ladder painting a projected image, and Stephan Ways, who is beginning to sketch a large-scale pig that with a protruding belly and a bandanna wrapped around its eyes. They are talking about the image of street art and graffiti and they are all from Baltimore.
The names of artists are painted on the 30 foot white walls of the gallery, designating the space they have to paint. By March 15, all of these walls will be covered. That’s when Catalyst, the street and graffiti artist collaboration, will be open to the public. Now it’s March 9, the first day of painting and six days before the show.
“Baltimore unfortunately is behind the times and is still trying to play catch up with the art scene,” Wake says. “No matter what it’ll always be vandalism.”
Catalyst is using the large scale installations to increase exposure for the community to street and graffiti art. This type of gallery is being spearheaded by EMP Collective.
EMP Collective is a group of artists who have joined forces to create a non-profit organization that is dedicated to creating provocative, social multimedia art experiences. They work with artists from all disciplines and collaborate with the local community to bring new, diverse art forms to a wide range of audiences.
Founded in 2011, EMP Collective has made it their mission to support artists in developing, promoting and producing their work. To do this, they regularly hold events and shows at their 5,000 square foot warehouse on the corner of West Baltimore and Howard Street.
EMP Collective has been voted the Best Arts Collective of 2012 by the Baltimore City Paper and listed under “visions to change Baltimore” by Baltimore Magazine.
Carly Bales, the Artistic Director for EMP Collective, says they do this not by using canvasses but by putting the art directly on the walls in the warehouse.
“I think it’s great to bring art into a gallery space but beyond canvasses, which is what you typically see when street art meets gallery space,” said Bales. “We have a space with large unencumbered walls that are perfect for mixing on contexts—gallery v outside walls.”
Adam Stab, 44, who is painting a mural for Catalyst, identifies by being the “greyest in the hair” within the Baltimore graffiti scene and agrees with the thinking behind the shows at EMP, but wants more.
“We need to advertise more and get the word out there,” said Stab. “Street art is for the public.”
The art that is painted on the walls at EMP Collective will stay until the gallery has a reason to start fresh, which would require the walls to be white. That means that when the doors close for the opening on March 15, the art will remain on the walls. EMP could host a play or another type of art gallery, yet the work from Wake and the other artists will still be showcased.
“To me it’s all about getting exposure and self-expression,” said Wake.
Since the artists are unable to sell their work, EMP requires a cover charge that goes towards supporting the artists. The show features music by an in-house DJ, an open bar with drinks that request a donation and the artists there to interact with the patrons.
“The format is a party to raise money for the artists,” said Ways.
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Four days before the show, Way’s pig is now a bubble gum pink with an electric blue bandanna. The walls of EMP are slowly being covered.
“A lot of people don’t know how intricate this process is,” Ways says. “It’s nice because a lot of the artists put up work in areas where people wouldn’t go, to be honest. This show allows people to see what people don’t get to experience.”
The show consists of street artists and graffiti artists, two scenes that usually don’t mesh well because of opposing styles. Each have differing preparation techniques and use of materials.
“All these types of work don’t usually exist together,” Ways says. “We chose artists that work independently and all own our own agenda.”
Wake jokes that he is the odd man out with his traditional East Coast style of graffiti. The tag he’s working on is becoming three-dimensional.
Street art and graffiti art are illegal forms of art. Artists usually avoid exposure because of legal consequences.
“A lot of artists don’t want you to know who they are,” says Wake. “It’s rare that you have contact with the artist in the graf scene.”
On March 15 when the exhibit opens to the public, whomever choses to come will be able to interact with the artists, while also participating in a free stencil workshop.
“It’s exposing them to it in a way where they can talk to an artist compared to seeing the art on a train or highway,” Wake says. “This way you get to see the process.”
EMP allows the artists to paint the walls floor to ceiling with whatever they prefer. Many of the participating artists have been in galleries before, but few of those are like this one.
Michael Sachse, 31, is a MICA graduate and street artist who is dedicated to exposing the Baltimore graffiti scene. He has been a street artist since the late 90’s when he first tagged his name on a garage wall.
Graffiti and street art has been a part of Baltimore’s culture for decades. For the past three years, Sachse has been working to create a book that will be titled “Baltimore Graffiti.” The book will be over 200 pages and feature over 150 artists. It will be published by the end of this month.
“My book is unique because I take all my own pictures,” said Sachse. “I think people, or I want people to know, that there is a graffiti scene here.”
The focus of his book will be a narrow window of what has occurred in the street art world in Baltimore over the last three years, but with a twist. His book is aiming to show the progression of the artists over the last three years.
“I’m more interested in where it’s going,” Sachse said. “More people are stuck in the past. At one point, people thought it was only vandalism, but now people are starting to appreciate the art aspect.”
“One of the reasons I’m writing the book is to broaden the horizons of people out there,” Sachse said. “To me, the more exposure it gets to the public eye, the more it becomes cultural standard. The more people do it, the more it breaks down the barrier of it being illegal.”
Criminal activity, vandalism, breaking and entering, theft and destruction of property are only a few of the many stereotypes that people associate with graffiti.
“The city and police force see graffiti as criminal activity or gang related,” Sachse said. “With gallery settings in public and legal places, people from the community can see it as something else.”
Sachse advocates the use of galleries to promote graffiti and street art in hopes of bringing it into the public eye. He understands that it’s a select group of people who visit art galleries which is the only downfall.
“In essence, what’s going on in the streets is where it’s at. It’s not for rich people or art academics to criticize. It’s for normal everyday people,” said Sachse. “Art in the gallery is for people who visit the gallery.”
In this way, galleries are helping the street art and graffiti art scene to gain a wider audience. Sachse says that there’s not enough graffiti artists putting work on the streets and exposing the community to the art.
“The more that it’s done, the more it becomes accepted amongst those people,” said Sachse.
One thing that art on the street accomplishes better than most galleries is allowing the community to get exposure to the particular piece of art. Maybe it’s being able to meet the artist, feel the wall, or experience the amount of time and effort that goes into street art and graffiti. Whatever the connection may be, it is rarely found in a gallery setting.
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When the doors to the exhibit opened on March 15, Ways’ pig was finished along with the other walls. There were smokers conjugating outside of the doors and bass coming from the DJ so loud that it could be heard while standing on the other side of Baltimore Street.
Inside, the gallery was filled with people standing under blue spotlights that illuminated a smorgasbord of murals, all with different technique and purpose.
The DJ was playing hip-hop throwback and current jams, while about 10 people gathered around a table in front of him participating in the featured stencil workshops. There were people taking pictures next to the murals emphasizing the size of the art. The open bar was juggling a heavy crowd and people were starting to bounce to the beats around 11.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Wake said. “It’s turned out great. I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback from everyone. It’s been awesome.”
The crowd ranged from children running around with sketchbooks to crowds of 20-something Baltimoreans to the parents of the children who looked content with spending their Saturday night in this manner.
“I think a lot of people were impressed,” Wake said. “Even people who were already artists themselves. We were able to expose them to an art they’ve never been exposed to.”
“Being around all of these like-minded people kind of pushed another person to go out of their comfort zone,” Wake said.
Ways agreed by applauding all of the effort the artists put into the gallery. The walls were covered, the crowd seemed beyond satisfied and the artists were extremely impressed with the outcome.
“Everybody managed to collaborate on all of the walls,” Ways said. “Everyone got creative and tried new things. Really, it worked out perfect.”