After the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, Baltimore City saw a surge in artistic political expression. Citizens began to take action on community issues by creating art. Art allowed individuals to gain perspective on local realities and often created space for people to begin envisioning a new world. The beauty of art activism resides in its inclusiveness; anyone can participate. This is something we see happening all over Baltimore City. We have elementary and middle school students expressing themselves through photography, university students showcasing art that tackles the black experience, and seasoned community organizers collaborating on art projects, such as Madre Luz, that actively resist confederate memorialization and regressive ways of thinking.
Most of the art activism in Baltimore City can be found in plain sight, usually in the form of murals, graffiti, and portraits. Street artist, Gaia, painted an elaborate mural on the side of a floral shop that was burned down during the Baltimore Uprising in 2015. The mural includes images that honor the Korean store-owners, as well as elements symbolizing ideas of freedom and Black Power.
Artist Justin Nethercut, also known as “Nether”, has painted dozens of murals across the city, all linked by common themes of social justice, inequality, and Baltimore culture. Here, Nether is pictured with a mural of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore native who lost his life to police brutality in 2015.
These visuals, in many cases, transcend the murals and paintings themselves, leading directly to conversations around art, identity, and how these two things intersect. The best example of this in Baltimore City is Balti Gurls, an art collective that aims to uplift marginalized communities, specifically black women and the LGBTQ community. Balti Gurls is a place where marginalized voices can be heard and important issues can be discussed. It is a place where art is a legitimate tool of expression and education.
The Uprising in 2015 brought a great deal of strife to the City of Baltimore and to all of those who feel a connection to it, but it also created a unique energy. Citizens, both young and old, feel motivated to share their experiences through creative expression. This creativity not only beautifies the city and tells the story of Baltimore and its people, but it also encourages fruitful conversation about the conditions in which we’re living. It allows people to choose a different path through activism, one that is outside of the traditional mold.
Art activism expands the idea of what a “change agent” looks like.