May 7, 2013, Washington, DC: Talented street artists Gaia and Nanook recently completed this massive mural on the side of a building in my neighborhood on Barracks Row. The newly opened Persian restaurant Tash and Asian restaurant Nooshi now feature this image of a woman with fish and fishing boats flowing into her hair, a piece as vibrant as city life itself on this DC main street. Because not many people experience their surroundings like this — from atop a ladder, creating large-scale art that the neighbors will see everyday, I suspected 24-year old Gaia might have a unique perspective to share with Neighborhood Nomads. When he replied that, “The fish were a delight to massage into the wall,” those suspicions were confirmed.
Gaia reflected on this bold new addition to Capitol Hill, his favorite places to create, and the cities he’s called home. Though the New York City native and recent graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art now travels the world to create art in locales from Buenos Aires to Johannesburg, he’s drawn most of all to the familiar streets of Baltimore.
“My favorite place to work in is Baltimore because there is a freedom that exists in that city’s streets,” he said. “Artistic negotiations occur on the individual, not institutional level. All I need is some paint, a ladder and permission from a homeowner to get started. Or just grab an abandoned building granted the neighbors are down to host a new mural on their block. No strings are ever attached and police have much better things to do.”
In Baltimore, Gaia has undertaken a project called Open Walls in conjunction with the PNC Foundation, Station North Arts and Entertainment District and the National Endowment for the Arts. Although Baltimore is his favorite place to work, he admits the stakes can feel higher working close to home.
“Clearly, there is a lot of pressure and more accountability when you produce a mural project just a couple blocks from your front door,” he said.
Wherever he works, Gaia knows some residents might view his murals as valuable additions to a streetscape while others might regard them with a far more critical eye.
“Art, irrespective of its form, is always the subject of the viewer/participant’s experience and art literacy,” he said. “So street art can either be seen as a boon or a blight, depending on its frame and context. For example, parts of Philadelphia have grown weary of more murals because existing residents believe that the pieces serve as a sign for a poor area.”
“When coupled with a “neighborhood revitalization effort,” street art becomes a method for re-envisioning an “up-and coming” place,” he explained.
On Barracks Row, Gaia recognizes some criticism has come because the mural’s subject matter is not rooted in the history of the neighborhood. He calls this “a totally valid concern” and atypical of his usual approach.
“Usually my work is very research-oriented or neighborhood specific,” he said. “The narrative and identity of a place becomes the material for my murals… Regardless of it being a decorative, “beautification”-oriented piece, the painting process was a joy since we had a budget to use all the colors necessary to make such a highly rendered picture.”
And yet his mural may become neighborhood history itself — one day. Perhaps like the faded mural a few doors down at Senart’s Oyster and Chop House, this mural will someday remind residents of the Barracks Row establishments that once existed there, and perhaps still do. Perhaps years from now this mural will peek out from behind the wall of a structure that has long since replaced a parking lot, reminding residents of the days when a world-renowned artist left his mark here, before packing up his paints and moving on.
Gaia’s other recent work in DC includes a mural on the side of H Street’s Smith Commons and one on a condo building on Benning Road. Click here to see more of his street art.
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