The city of Baltimore is known for many great things. It’s home to America’s beloved National Anthem, it’s where you’ll find the largest collection of Matisse paintings in the world, and it’s also where dark poet and writer Edgar Allen Poe lays to rest. Baltimore is known for its art district, its love of crabs and pit beef, and of course, it’s where we show support for our football and baseball teams, the Ravens and the Orioles, respectively. If you look in the right places, Baltimore is a treasure trove of sights and sounds.
Praise withstanding, Baltimore is as much Mobtown as it is Charm City. American anthropologist and historian Richard Price commented that “Baltimore, in fact, is chaos theory incarnate”, and many natives of the densely populated city can attest to that statement. In 2015, Baltimore’s murder rate per capita was the highest ever recorded after a crime wave that all started when 25-year-old was arrested by Baltimore Police and later died in their custody. Charges against the officers were later dropped. There were over 340 homicides recorded last year, and problems such as economic depression and racial conflict have been a staple of the city for years. Anyone who has lived in Baltimore for awhile will tell you that life can be difficult, and opportunity is hard to come by.
That doesn’t stop some natives from trying to live and enjoy their city. Among the of hustle and bustle of the downtown art district, there is a lovely array of street art that shines across many of the buildings, and a community of artists who devote their lives to this expression and the stories they tell. Nether is one of those artists. His large and beautifully painted pieces can be seen all over Baltimore. They are more than just colorful pieces of artistic expression. They are visual documents of life through the eyes of a forgotten people. Nether’s visual work taps into social dialogues that speak on racism, poverty, social unrest, political tyranny, and a need to unearth the history of a city that was once proud. His work is intended to regain that pride and to memorialize the people who have stood by Baltimore through good times and through bad. His paintings are deep, brutally honest, unapologetic, and they speak volumes. As an artist and activist, Nether is a natural born leader and master of his craft and perspective.
In this interview, I am fortunate enough to get glimpse into the mind and expressive creativity that Nether wields to create these astounding works of art. He talks about growing up in the city, his involvement in different protest and projects around Baltimore, and how he uses street art to illustrate that rebuilding our country can only be accomplished by first acknowledging the flaws in our history, not brushing them off in favor of generic, default patriotism.
When did you first get into street art, and how did you know that this was something you wanted to continue to pursue?
I first got into street art when I was young but didn’t pursue it as a path seriously until about 2010. Growing up by chance I knew quite a few writers (Stab, Cedar, Dume, etc….), enjoyed the thrill of going out painting and exploring places, but never got into painting letters to much. At that time I was most into film and from practically birth I have been very interested in Baltimore cultural and urban issues. Everything got a bit more serious around 2010 when I became friends with GAIA and lived/shared a studio space with Samuel TEFCON. Around that time I learned how to wheatpaste, started self-teaching myself different techniques common in street art, and all my video work just stopped. I just got hooked and didn’t really look back. At first it was just getting my work up, learning the ropes, but as things progressed I started to get more direct and intentional in terms of my content and it’s placement.
When you were starting out, who did you look to for inspiration? Who are some that inspires you today?
When I was starting out, I would say Swoon, Elbow Toe, Specter, and a lot of the better know wheatpasters. Now, I would say a lot of my idols are those who plan and execute very conceptual and strategic political actions and even pranks. Examples of this are individuals/groups such as The Yes Men, Voina, and certain actions by Katsu. I am most interested in discovering how street art can be used as a form of civil disobedience and how different social movements have adapted visual practices. I try to always find new formulas and ways of getting into people’s heads and sparking needed dialogue. Stylistically, recently I have been interested in artists who paint large-scale works from the ground with extension poles. It’s a style of working that is very adaptable to many different types of wall painting and circumstances.
Baltimore is a beautiful city, but it’s not without its share of flaws. What are some early experiences, trials, or tribulations you’ve had growing up in this city that have influenced your artwork?
Without getting into too many specifics, it has been growing up in the city and deeply experiencing two different worlds with barriers that I grew to want to be a part of smashing. Growing up in north Baltimore while having friends in many different areas of the city exposed me to a lot. I grew up knowing and directly experiencing the city’s divisions in both the metaphorical and actual sense. As any kid, curiosity and thirst for adrenaline led to exploration and discovery of the city and my own sense of place. As I grew older I learned about the history and context that created the city. Watching the city change for better and worse has made me want to be a part of its change. Also my family’s social/political passion influenced mine, educating my perspective on the city. My mother does union work and my father is a civil rights advocate to give you an idea. As result, from the get go I was more or less indoctrinated with a history and interest in social-movements. In highschool, I was involved in different protest/advocacy groups such as the Baltimore Algebra Project, which protested the illegal underfunding of the school board under O’Malley. Getting a taste of civil disobedience/methods of protesting, knowing many different parts of the city fairly well from a young age, love for exploration, a developed distrust for government, and love for art is what probably got me where I am today.
Another thing that has been interesting in Baltimore street art is that there was never much illegal work with exception to straight-up letter graffiti before ~ 2008, when Gaia started putting up wheatpastes. As result, working completely illegally since the start in this town has been a path down a pretty uncharted river. Seeing wheatpasted work around Baltimore was originally like a Where’s Waldo game. From the beginning of my time in street art, I as well as other artists were having very interesting and encouraging dialogue with local residents, community groups, and even individual police officers who have stopped by when I’ve been putting up work just to watch, makes sure I was “alright”, “watch my back”, and even take selfies. Particularly from within neighborhoods with abundances of abandoned properties, many of us have been encouraged to put the work on vacants and residents have had zero problem that our work was being done without permission from absentee landlords. At that time it turned from a nighttime thing to a daytime thing. Now in Baltimore when I paint non-commissioned murals and even wheatpaste, I make a solid attempt to talk to people on the block first. Everytime. It’s about getting people’s blessing. Since major mural projects like Open Walls, most people just assume everything is legal but on the occasion that somebody asks me about the legality of my work, I’m honest. Baltimore is a city where it’s unofficial cultures and power of the residents in their own neighborhoods often have a lot more pull within communities than initiatives trickled down from city hall. I always am more interested in appeasing the people most local to the wall over the people whose capital interests built it or the people who will critique it online.
When compared to cities like NYC or LA, what do you think sets Baltimore apart in terms of its street art?
Broadly speaking, Baltimore isn’t as much about work simply eye-candy. You don’t as often see the mass production of singular images solely for the self promotion of an artist’s brand. The wave of street art that has hit Baltimore arrived a little differently than many other places like New York or Los Angeles. On one hand, many projects have followed or been inspired by the modern street art festival formula that is present in almost every major city in the US. On the other hand, with many of the local muralists and projects, there has always been a correlation of ideas and social commentary from the present day to the earlier works of Ernest Shaw, and even to the great Pontella Mason. I see a lot of the street work in places like New York as more guerilla advertising or artistic brand marketing than art for the sake of expression. I feel the art that excites me the most is that which excels both in context and in content. At the same time that I am most inspired by this angle, I believe that a multiplicitous public art scene is important, and therefore it seems off for me to try to push any particular angle with such a free flowing type of art.
Many of your pieces speak of social injustice, racism, and bigotry. As of late, we have seen more and more of these types of issues within our country. What part can artistic expression play in these times, and what impact do you hope to have with your artwork in that regard?
Due to your question, I have to share this:
“When social movement embrace artists, they harness the power of those who excel at expressing new ideas and reaching people in ways that words and other forms of media cannot. They harness the power of visual culture. And when artists join movements, their work-and by extension their lives-takes on far greater meaning. They become agitators in the best sense of the word and their art becomes less about the individual and more about the common vision and aspirations of many. Their art becomes part of a culture of resistance.”
– Nicolas Lampert, A People’s Art History of the United States
Generally what I have been trying to push with my art is a resistance to the narrow narrative of history told through official American public art. When I think of the history of public art in this country primarily I think of sculpture, present in the public realm as statues, that have been erected to cement an official history. As direct result, there is a disenfranchisement the history of struggle/resistance in this country. In Baltimore some of our most prominent statues are of Christopher Columbus, confederate generals, and colonizers. We are a country that brushes its flaws under the rug and boasts our unwavering moral purity. We dropped our paddles way up river and now our country is wondering why it can’t steer itself in a new direction. While we sit in bewilderment to national philosophical dilemmas, in Germany they encourage the public and tourists to take a very sobering tour of Auschwitz and other concentration camps – a shameful part of German history. Acknowledgment and re-writing the books is a crucial cathartic part in rebuilding our societies. We just don’t do that in this country. As result I don’t want to have any part in telling the official state history or the history of those it has elevated; that’s not what’s honest or what being a social documentarian in a city of untold stories means to me.
Sometimes, the well runs a bit dry, and we as artists hit walls, making it difficult for us to become inspired to create. How do you power through those moments and find inspiration to continue creating?
Since running into street art I haven’t really run into the problem of finding new content but rather always crave to keep my work fresh and my mind balanced. In Baltimore, there are so many stories to tell I could keep doing this for the rest of my life and still never feel like my work is complete. At the same time that the city is forever inspiring, it also can be very overwhelming and intense. It has been important to be adaptable, forever improving/building, accept constructive criticism. I try to never conform to a style and always try new techniques and ideas.
As I try to branch out into other cities and countries I have been really interested and inspired by cross pollinating ideas across and finding connections between cultures. I like to explore the relationship between different struggles and the similarities between experiences. Along with making connections, travel has been a great opportunity for me to create site specific work in new places. This summer through TAG Public Arts Project I got the opportunity to touch on the issue of immigration in the Bronx, which as a community has been struggling with news of ICE raids targeting Central Americans. Also, through Galerie F, I had to opportunity to traveled with Pablo Machioli to Chicago to paint a wall in the south-side neighborhood of Pilsen. In the neighborhood, which is facing many issues concerning urban planning, I painted a statue of Heracles taming a bull, speaking to the taming of Chicago through leveling of public housing and redevelopment of vacant land in south chicago. Travel keeps it fresh for sure.
Street Art and graffiti have definitely changed over the years. Where do you see this art form in the next few years? Does it still have a prominent future?
I really have no idea but I assume that with such a naturally unconstrained art form, more control of production, content, and narrative will be inevitable. Sadly the more people you involve in a concept, out of good intention, the less room the art has to breathe. Also, I have personally witnessed and seen my work and the work of others being used as a tools by capital interests to hush voices of resistance. There is a new issue in public art and general beautification which in many ways can arguably reflect colonization. This is the idea that that us artists hold respect and therefore cultural currency. That currency can be purchased from us by entities such as developers or the city as a way to pacify resistance.
Do you have any tips for budding street artists who are serious about getting up?
Take a shot, be respectful, fuck up, get dissed, have it all turn to ambition, greater understanding, and a drive to develop skill. Don’t be classic, be innovative and next level. Try to talk to people in the neighborhoods you put your work in. Not out of precaution necessary but dialogue evolves artwork. You are in the public sphere and This isn’t some cool secret subculture anymore but rather just an aspect of popular culture that is in effect in every city in America. If you wear a mask only due it only if it’s completely necessary but then never pose, that will only impress sheep.
Are there any brands of art products in particular that you tend to use more than others?
It’s hard to make a living here so I try to stay flexible and cheap since I usually don’t get paid. I don’t use dollar cans that often but I will. Companies and stores that donate paint and give discounts to artists doing public work are amazing because there is no real reliable infrastructure or funding for paid murals in many cities, including Baltimore. I don’t think it’s necessarily the state’s responsibility but it’s kind of a shame and everybody I have talked with who paints here has been pretty vocal with their frustration. We provided a real service to parts of the city to which basic luxuries don’t extend while most of us muralists, out of hunger and obsession, paint whether or not a check is included. It’s frustrating to say the least.
In terms of technique, I tend to do all my underpainting with 4” hot dog rollers and watered down exterior acrylic. Unless the walls of a size where I cannot, I generally like to paint from the ground with extension poles and rollers. This helps to efficiently work colors through the wall and gives a much better sense of proportion without having to step back all the time. After I’ve gone as far as I want to with the rollers, I usually will switch to spray paint and use it from then to completion. I rarely use brushes at all since it sometimes makes my work look too soft if I am planning to blend with spray. I like being able to see parts of the underpainting come through in the midtones, so I prefer to do blending at mainly the highlights and shadows with aerosol. I always am trying to always evolve/develop different techniques and I’m not sure if any of that made sense or be the same tomorrow.
What are the best ways to keep up with you and your art online?
I mainly post to Instagram. Here I post a lot of process photos as works are being created. And my website is http://www.NETHER410.com where there are galleries, videos, and information about my work.
Check out this short movie showcasing two years of Nether’s street art.