Baltimore-Based Artist/Activist Nether on Breaking Down Barriers, Honoring Freddy Gray, Forging Street Art for Social Justice and more

August 16, 2015

Nether-Freddy-Gray-Mural-Baltimore copy

A few years back, several wheatpastes – many of children — surfaced on the walls of NYC’s marginal neighborhoods. The works of Baltimore-based artist and activist Nether, they seamlessly reflected the folks with whom they shared the streets. In his native Baltimore, Nether has been actively involved in several community-oriented projects, including Baltimore Slumlord Watch drawing attention to neglected properties and the issue of vacant housing. And in 2013, as founder and president of the non-profit, Wall Hunters, INC, he facilitated the installation of 17 murals on abandoned properties in Baltimore.  More recently,  Nether‘s focus has been on the death of Freddy Gray at the hands of his city’s police and Baltimore’s broken justice system. While visiting Baltimore earlier this month, I had the opportunity to speak to Nether and visit some of his recent murals.

When I last visited Baltimore, you were involved in the Wall Hunters: Slumlord Project.  Its intention was to expose landlords who had neglected properties. Have you seen any outcomes from this project?

Definitely! Since the project began, there’s been dialogue on the issue and focus from the social justice community. It’s hard to know if we were directly responsible, but several buildings that we targeted have been demolished. The first one happened only a month after Stefan Ways painted his piece on it.


How has the local art scene changed in these past few years?

It really has.  There seem to be many more projects coming from a variety of directions and approaches.  Also, recently there has been a lot of reflection in the art scene on the many barriers in the city that separate people. Hopefully, this will create pressure on curators, venues, gallery owners, and arts businesses to diversify their crowds, artists and outreach. There has, also, been a focus on social justice through street art this summer. I have been involved in organizing murals in Sandtown. BOPA has been running this amazing ART@WORK program — in partnership with Jubilee  —  teaching and employing kids in Sandtown to paint murals with professionals such as Ernest Shaw.  Also, a group of Morgan students organized an installation on Greenmount Avenue adjacent to a wall by Pablo Machioli and Gaia.  Other active projects include: Richard Best’s Section 1 Project and the Shift Project in Highlandtown.


The memorial mural that you painted in tribute to Freddy Gray has garnered quite a bit of media attention.  At what point did you begin painting the mural?

The planning began after his death around the time of the first protest, and I began painting the mural the day the curfew ended.

What was the mood like the evening of his death?

People were respectful and united.  So much solidarity that evening. The people were taking their pain and turning it into an incredibly positive movement.


How do folks in Sandtown respond to your presence in their neighborhood?

Generally, people are surprised, yet welcoming.  People constantly speak to me, and I always welcome that.  I essentially sit on a ladder all day and receive stories.  My feeling is that I’m a guest in their neighborhood, and I need the people’s blessings to paint.  Also, I’m very up-front about my personal background and what part of the city I’m from. I do get occasional comments that are meant to offend me, but street art in Baltimore has the potential to break down the social boundaries created by decades and decades of discrimination.  A mutual feeling of Bmore Love among Baltimoreans is one of those forces that is so strong that, I believe, it can get over any hurdle that is thrown in front of it.  When I go to a place like Sandtown, it is to create a dialogue and deal with hard topics that I have to be comfortable talking about. What I do isn’t easy; it deals with very difficult issues.  Many of the conversations that I have had with people have heavily influenced my artwork. I try to plan murals that are able to adapt and change through dialogue and the creative process.


What did bring you to Sandtown at such a difficult time?

Having previously done many paste-ups and murals in Sandtown, loving Baltimore, and the fact that state violence had been the focus of my work for a while now.

And how has the response to the final mural been?

Folks have been extremely appreciative and supportive.  The mural has attracted media, often giving residents the chance to speak out about those issues that are so important to the entire city.  The more murals that go up from all the projects going on in Sandtown, the more this will happen. The idea is to promote a message that is amplified so loudly that it can no longer be ignored.


What’s ahead?

More murals in Baltimore that will act to aid the movement and call out the issues that have plagued Baltimore’s neglected neighborhoods for generations.

Note: Photos 2 and 3 are of murals done in collaboration with Stefan Ways.

Interview by Lois Stavsky; photo 4 by Lois Stavsky; all others courtesy of the artist.

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