One of the absolute best things about visiting New York City is the thriving and ever-changing urban art scene – murals, wall art, graffiti, stickers, wheat paste posters, etc. It’s everywhere. Every street corner, brick wall, light pole, street sign or park bench is a target. Seeing a new, original piece of street art in NYC is like catching lightning in a bottle. Anything that gets put up has an inevitable expiration date. Once the paint dries, a countdown clock starts ticking down to the art’s eventual removal by some no-fun-having city municipal employee, or is painted over by another artist, or even washed away by a rain shower in the case of things attached with wheat paste. The point of urban art is to be temporary. It represents a snapshot of a moment in time that will never be duplicated again.
I’ve written about this before in the first two iterations of this series with my brother Collen’s version of urban art in Volume 1 where he leaves his original work and then tweets out the location for people to take. And in Volume 2, renowned street artist JerkFaceNYC paints pop culture-infused murals.
For Volume 3, I want to focus a bit closer to home – Baltimore. I’ve lived here for nearly 4 years and in that time I’ve noticed a general lack of street art culture (at least in the neighborhoods I’ve lived) and at times have wondered why. This city has a rich artistic history with countless art museums and exhibits, as well as the iconic Artscape, held ever July.
Yet there are only a few sporadic murals (like the one above) around the city, but no concentrated area where pieces are regularly made and reapplied. Or at least I thought there wasn’t.
A few weeks ago my girlfriend sent me an article describing a little place called “Graffiti Alley” in the northern part of the city. To my surprise and immense delight it appears that I was wrong all this time. There is a place where urban artistic expression goes on without the fear of removal or prosecution by the BPD. It even shows up on Google Maps.
Graffiti Alley is a short, L-shaped alley that connects North Howard Street to W 19 1/2 St. Maybe 100 feet in length total, this little piece of rebellion backs up against the Station North Arts Center, which puts on several art expos per year and serves as the backbone of Baltimore’s art scene. After reading up on the history of the alley from its time as an out of the way heroin shoot-up spot turned living graffiti expo, I knew I had to go a take look.
We showed up on a cool Saturday morning in early May with Snapchat at the ready to document this rare oasis of spray paint and stencils. As we walked in, a few teenage girls were milling about one entrance, kicking empty spray paint cans and adding their own rudimentary tags to the pavement.
The peaceful and semi-sacred vibe was immediate when we walked in. At once, it felt both safe and insubordinate. I got the sense that the patients were running the asylum. I could see “NO RULES” splashed in large block letters above our heads.
A dichotomy of large and highly detailed pieces intermingled with erratically written swear words or incomprehensible letters and symbols filled the walls and concrete floor. The “Rustie” tag below probably took quite a while to finish. But right next to it was the crude yet sort of charming “BUTT STUFF” inside a heart in childish writing. Both are equally appreciated and accepted in the alley.
As we slowly walked down the alley taking in each painted brick, an enterprising kid in his early twenties rolled up on a long board with a backpack stuffed with spray cans and a Bluetooth speaker strapped to his back bumping “Paper Trail$” by NY rapper Joey Bada$$. My man.
He immediately set to work. Rooting through his cans, he grabbed the white and covered up the juvenile “ANAL” that had been scrawled over two white Mickey Mouse hands rolling a blunt.
As Joey Bada$$ faded out, replaced with “Collard Greens” by Schoolboy Q, the kid moved on to touch up other pieces around the alley. It was as if he was on duty this morning, a steward of the alley, maintaining some semblance of order and character to the works that untold others had finished before him. We stood and watched him silently as Kendrick Lamar’s guest verse echoed around the walls. After finishing up one cover up, he slipped past us without a word and turn the corner to find another tag to touch up. DOOT – DOOT – DOOT – DOOT.
Something I realized as I wandered up and down this stretch of revitalized pavement is that subtlety in these types of places can sometimes be lost if you don’t take your time. After a few rounds, I noticed themes and cohesion begin to come into focus. There were countless penguins and other furry creatures scattered across the walls. I can’t say for certain whether they were done by the same artist or they just represent a long line of individuals being inspired to paint cute animals. Either way, it was just one of many unifying features of this place that make it unique.
I think the best part of this jaunt into a hidden part of the city was seeing a single frame in the ongoing film that is Grafitti Alley. Every day a new piece is added, another is defaced or covered up. That Saturday morning was the first time it looked like that and the only time it ever will again. And not only that but being able to return at another time down the line and reexperiencing it again like it’s a whole new canvas. The next time I go, there probably won’t be several childhood cartoon references like Patrick Starr or Daria.
I highly recommend checking this place out if you have an hour or two. We went in the morning, but I can imagine a late evening visit would be dope, too.
Also, whenever I see these tags and stickers I think of the UK dubstep producer, Caspa (not the same guy). He was just diagnosed with cancer so shouts to him to keep fighting.
I did a Google Images deep dive into past iterations of the Alley. Here are some of my favorites:
Cover Photo Image Credit: Christopher Crews