Art in a Can

A Review of Graffiti Alley by Sophie Mancini 

There’s something about an act typically classified as illegal; it feels so invigorating. Graffiti. The name conjures up hoodie-clad figures spray-painting at night, leaving bright and bubbled tags like breadcrumbs around the underbelly of an urban landscape. It feels odd to stumble across a place where this eternally persecuted practice is not only legal but rather, encouraged. Welcome to Graffiti Alley.

Graffiti Alley, in Baltimore, Maryland.
123RF Photography

A friend and I parked near a stretch of rundown buildings in the Station North Arts District. Everything looked desolate, crumbling in brick and metal. But between North Avenue and Howard Street, in a corner alley, an explosion of color was hiding. Massive cubed letters in jewel tones, jet black scripts, and candy-colored illustrations line the walls and floors of the alley, crawling stories-high up the walls, filling every crevice with paint. Today Graffiti Alley is a welcome playground for local and visiting street artists alike. Located behind a warehouse that was a car dealership 100 years ago and is being currently rehabbed as The Motor House, an arts hub with studios and performance spaces, the space exists as a haven for practicing graffitists. It allows them a place in the city where their craft is legal—the only such in Baltimore.

We bought spray paint at Artist and Craftsman Supply, an art supply store across the street. The building appears to be a hodgepodge warehouse but the interior is an oasis of creative materials. I could’ve spent an hour sifting through pens, papers, masks and more.

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Once in the alley, red spray paint in hand, I aimlessly marked the walls with sprawling doodles and names, phrases and faces. There’s an unspeakable pleasure in leaving a mark on public property, an aggressive and narcissistic hunger it satisfies. Born and bred in tight-laced schools from a cautious family, the closest I’d ever come to vandalism was spitting my gum on the 5th Avenue pavement. This gritty and gaudy alley, aesthetically so far from the white marble and manicured lawns of Hopkins, has an edge that I don’t normally encounter. Having lived for twenty years in Manhattan, unrefined streets that no one has attempted to capitalize on are few and far between. The concept of a space for “free” anything is not familiar to me. Standing there, marking up any space I could find, gave me a heady sense of liberation and lawlessness.

graffiti_alley_6_by_darkphoenix36-d4u1w48
Deviant Art Photography 

Mid-tag I turned to see a crowed of guys with video cameras and bags full of spray paints. They set up shop and got to work. Instead of the instantaneous signage spurting out of my canister, these men used their tools carefully, thoughtfully, spraying in strokes—creating complex multi-dimensional images. One man alternated between purple and pink sprays, flicking his wrists to fill in color like a painter doing Impressionistic brushwork. The other sprayed in slow fine lines of silver that glowed. There was no impulsive or destructive intent, solely the act of new creation over old. I was watching art being made.

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Graffiti Alley might appear to be a lasting relic of the rough and un-gentrified Baltimore. However, after some googling I realized that it is actually an embodiment of the new Charm City. Despite its appearances, Graffiti Alley is far from a hidden gem, it’s practically a crown jewel. The locale is commonly used for photo shoots, performances, even weddings. For a place centered around “free” art, it seems to be quite economically viable.

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Reared in the mecca of Manhattan gentrification, the capitalist in me questions why they haven’t started charging admissions yet. I can envision the profit it could generate as an outdoor nightclub or a new biergarten. Then I realized that it should, and will always be, a sacred place for art. Graffiti Alley revived a belief I had formerly never subscribed to: sometimes, the best things in life really are free.

Location: Howard St & W 19 1/2 St (behind Load of Fun), Baltimore, MD 21201

Sophie Mancini is a New York based writer studying in Baltimore. She enjoys riding ATVs, reading minimalist literature, and eating kimchi.

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