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Gaia likes to say he comes from garbage. By this he means his New York City-based Italian family ran a waste-management facility in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea when he was growing up. It’s a jarring visual, thinking of him miniaturized and standing among towers of waste, but immediately tells me something about the street artist who goes by the Greek word for mother earth: he appreciates the romance of a good origin story.

Only the second person in his family to go to college, Gaia moved to Baltimore thirteen years ago to attend MICA, where he spent five years working on his BFA and wondering if it was at all worth it. After graduating, he stayed here because he fell in love with what he describes as the “intimacy” of our small city and its active street art scene.

What he started as a prep school kid in New York wheatpasting posters and “flirting,” as he calls it, with other street artists (essentially leaving small pieces where you hope another artist will see and respond to them in kind) has become a successful painting career. His work can be spotted on walls up and down the east coast and in places as far-flung as the west coast and Europe.

Working first illegally on unoccupied structures, Gaia now exclusively works on private commissions. His murals dot Baltimore City and are immediately recognizable for their realism, sense of color, and strong, often political narratives, some of which are subtle to the casual viewer. It’s a concern for Gaia to primarily make work that lives outside without the benefit of any artist statement or even titling wall text to help communicate his larger message.

Still Here, in collaboration with the Tomaquag Museum, in Providence, RI

He tells me the story of a mural he completed in another east coast city where none of the primary stakeholders had any idea that the mural’s meaning is a comment “on gentrification as neocolonialism.” And yet, he has found that the paying gigs, for which he can charge more and more with each passing year, make giving back to the Baltimore street scene possible. With his connections and leftover supplies, Gaia has made it a personal priority to help young muralists who are just starting out find their footing and get hooked up to available walls.

As he’s getting older—and at 32, he’s now into what’s considered middle-aged for a street artist; legalities aside, the nature of the work is extremely physically demanding—Gaia is thinking about himself more and more as a facilitator, a connector who makes introductions and greases the wheels for other artists, especially artists of color, to find and paint legal walls both in Baltimore and abroad. “Often I function in a capacity as a lead assistant or production manager,” he says. “But mainly it is imparting skills to my peers, namely lessons in aerosol and scaling up.” He has served as an assistant to artists such as Megan Lewis, on a mural at the Pratt Library’s Washington Village branch, and Ernest Shaw, on murals in Greenmount West and Sandtown. 

Gaia and assistant Multisse in front of Waverly mural

It’s clear that while Gaia is happy with where he is now, there are a couple of chapters he might have liked to skip, and he’s using his resources to help the next generation avoid some of his more consequential legal mishaps. Over the years he’s been arrested a few times, been on and off probation, and beat a charge in New York, all for graffiti-related offenses, so he knows he’s lucky to still be doing this work and not in jail or worse. When talking about his career trajectory, Gaia acknowledges the privileges his whiteness affords him with regularity, noting he’s been “escorted out of neighborhoods” with the added implication from the police that his removal was, in part, for his own safety. While he lives in Baltimore and has no plans to leave, he considers himself a New Yorker forever, and in non-COVID times he spends much of the year on the road or in airports, leapfrogging from gig to gig.

Over Zoom, Gaia and I talked about 12-story murals, bureaucratic red tape, and why social media is the only legacy he is focused on.

SUBJECT: Gaia, 32
WEARING: Hugo Boss extra slim suit with a vintage, painted shirt, and Cole Haan bit loafers
PLACE: Zoom, Station North

Gaia and assistant Multisse in front of Waverly mural

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Gaia: Admittedly, I used to be an avid reader but have since reduced my pace so as not to get too overstimulated. Relational Aesthetics holds a special place in my heart since my work sits under the umbrella of social practice. Currently I am weaving together the stories told in Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People, The Atlas of Archaeology by K. Branigan, and Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. I’m preparing an exhibition of paintings in the Netherlands for the late Spring that will derive its content from these three sources and their intertwining narratives.

What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best? 

The worst career advice I have ever received is that publicity is somehow not necessary for the validation of contemporary art. Narrative is so important. 

You’re from New York and consider yourself a New Yorker always, but you’ve lived in Baltimore for thirteen years and counting. What makes Baltimore a great place for a street artist to call home?

I stayed in Baltimore because I love the city in and of itself. I like its intimacy. I feel like a person here, whereas in New York it’s quite anonymous and there are many different communities that never intersect. It’s a wonderful feeling to be recognized on the street.

Additionally, I love the city because as muralists we are free. We’re like pirates, we love each other and are generally not competitive. I think it’s because Ernest Shaw is a major fulcrum of our scene and there is a culture of conflict resolution. The promise of the entrepreneurial spirit here is that everyone can have their lane. There are sign painters, muralists with revenue from community grants, hustlers who survive from private referrals. Everyone endeavors to stay off each other’s toes and remain open to collaborative painting sessions and skill sharing. Baltimore’s mural and street art scene is quite unique from that perspective nationally. 

You often design mural proposals that don’t end up getting commissioned. Does that disappoint you at all? 

My practice is rooted in a meandering and broad investigation of place. I seek to peel back as many imbricated layers of competing histories before I engage a particular community so that I can come to the table well-equipped for dialogue. Naturally, this is a time-intensive process, and often the communities that I am engaging are more compelling than the clients themselves. More often than not, my research does not see the light of day as a visual representation of this work because the client will reject my proposals. But rather than let all of that labor languish, I will often share the proposal in all of its Photoshopped glory on social media as if it was in fact painted in real life. By posting these “fake walls” after their initial failure, I intend to push the limits of what is considered “real” on social media, and the street art world’s fascination with authenticity as opposed to the conceptual.

 

Vincent Scully Tribute in Seaside, CA

Have you always been an artist? How did you know? Was there ever another career path you considered or were encouraged to pursue? Did you ever think about joining the family business?

My family is originally from New York and was involved in the private garbage disposal business, but working on a truck was never an option for me as my grandfather had downsized the business by the time I was born. Despite our working-class roots, my father was college-educated and became quite interested in the literary and visual arts. As a child, I developed a penchant for copying things with pencil, and this led to an upbringing in which my artistic capacities were constantly encouraged with extracurricular lessons at places like the Art Student League. I never seriously considered anything else besides the liberal arts generally, but making the decision to apply for art school ultimately determined my future. 

I know you identify as an anarchist, so, market forces aside, what is a material you love and tend to stockpile?

From a purely philosophical standpoint, I am decidedly anti-authoritarian, but from a practical level, I am an entrepreneur. My favorite thing to hoard is designer sneakers and tailored suits, preferably Hugo Boss, because unfortunately, perception is everything. 

What do you predict is going to be the next big trend and when are we all going to catch on to it? 

All I can say is the Green New Deal can’t come soon enough. 

What’s a favorite local restaurant and what is your go-to order? 

My favorite everyday go-to spot for prepared seafood is Fishnet in Mount Vernon Marketplace because of the fresh ingredients and affordability. Otherwise, it’s Verde for their margherita pizza.

Being a mentor is important to you and you clearly try to help other artists coming up in the scene however you can. If your contemporaries learn nothing else from you, what do you hope they take away from your experience?

Personally, I believe we are all connected as an artistic community by our craft and skills. Our abilities are not proprietary and should not be hoarded. If someone needs assistance producing a mural, I try to make myself available. If a neighborhood or property owner has a compelling story to tell but lacks the resources, I can often manage to source the necessary materials and equipment on a donation basis. 

My mentorship relationships are similarly informal and non-hierarchical. I aspire to be available to any peer or emerging artist who has exhibited an interest in large-format painting or intervention within the streets. Therefore my associations are simply rooted in sharing, rather than guidance. The only insight I have to offer into the art world is the value of a consistent studio routine.

 

Crystal Ship, Memorial to the Liberal Order, 2018, Ostend, Belgium
Motherhood The Illusion of Modernity, Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia 2017

What does a consistent studio routine look like for you?

A consistent studio routine has transformed from a manic energy in my youth where I strove to constantly produce new content for the streets, to an experiment in slow consistency with more attention to detail. Nowadays, I get in the studio around 10 a.m. after morning chores and emails, paint street material and canvases until roughly 7 p.m., head home and continue final research or administrative follow-ups in the evenings. Of course, this ideal is constantly interrupted by the mural aspects of my practice. For example, simply maintaining them from being defaced is a chore in and of itself. 

Do you have a daily “uniform” or specific favorite piece of clothing?

I work outside all year-round so my winter uniform is as follows: Hoka Kaha One One boots for support, skinny jeans with Carhartt pants layered over top, Carhartt Full Swing jacket with a simple crewneck sweatshirt underneath. Plain earth tones for winter work.

If you had unlimited funding, time, and the ability to hire assistants, describe the project you’d make or organize.

I believe that public art is a facet of public health that is underutilized in Baltimore. While we have festivals and mural programs, there is no specific apparatus for emerging entrepreneurial artists who want to produce socially engaged work. Having access to a pool of grants for artists who directly collaborate with local business owners and informal organizations would make storytelling and narrative a more direct endeavor. Past initiatives have provided a framework for this model, but they have been neighborhood-specific and limited in their scope. 

What are the last three emojis you used?

😊 🙏🏻  👏🏻 

Gaia and assistant Multisse in front of Waverly mural
Waverly Mural, Baltimore
Gaia's painting shoes

You’re intimately familiar with the street art of Baltimore. When other artists come to town from elsewhere, is there any in particular you tell them to go check out?

The first place I take anyone who comes to visit Baltimore is the Fremont Avenue Arabber stables right off of Laurens Street. The stables are filled with murals celebrating the Arabber heritage and the rural animals are always a wonderful juxtaposition to the city. Then depending on their appetite for adventure, there are two great walks for viewing graffiti. Just off of the Jones Falls trail beginning at the Conduit that runs underneath the city, one can meander all the way to Hampden, stopping off at scenic places such as the Round Falls and the arches of the 29th Street bridge just within the forest. But if my guest is willing to take some risks, walking the Freight Belt Line along 26th Street or the North East Regional Amtrak Line after the B and P Tunnel portal on the west side is a safe, albeit legally dubious, but totally unique reading of the city and country. 

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?

This is not a popular opinion, but my proximity to Waldorf education has made me a little wary of astrology. I am apparently quite the Libra though.

 

Waverly Mural, Baltimore

Who are your art heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest?

Theaster Gates is my art hero because he has transformed a solitary studio occupation into a visionary, multi-disciplinary, place-based practice that holistically considers cities, sites, and their contexts. Alfredo Jaar is admirable for his quick-witted installations that keep investigation sharp and pointed. Finally, Swoon is someone for whom I have immense respect because of her deep consideration for artistic legacy and impact beyond personal expression at such an early stage in her career.

What would your teenage self think of you today? 

My teenage self would be relieved that I could in fact survive on my own as an artist and probably slightly disappointed that I haven’t exactly gotten the thriving part down. 

Cities are in constant flux, building and rebuilding themselves daily. As a result, a lot of street art is made and lost. What do you feel is the proper lifespan of a mural that you’ve put up? Is it ever okay for it just to be gone? 

Inherently, we deal with weather when we’re working outside and I’m not dealing with sculptural materials. So it’s ephemeral and its primary mode of communication is social media. If someone denies a proposal of mine, I’ll mock it up in Photoshop so it looks a little bit realistic, not uncanny, but just noticeable, and post the artwork as if it was painted. I’ll do even a full description with full subtext—because I don’t give a fuck. It’s a fake mural but the conversation it generates does not necessarily have to be lost. But the trickery ends at the slippery juncture between real and virtual; I will always be forthright if anyone tries to confirm its realness. And I’ll say, “Yes, it’s Photoshop.” I’m not trying to lie to anybody, I didn’t say it wasn’t Photoshop, but you’re absolutely right. 

Did you consider the piece as if you’re here with it now? Does it need to be painted? It lives for eternity online, as long as there are servers burning to keep electricity flowing. And then I don’t really care if those servers go out because we’ll have other deeper concerns. It lives forever online. It should live in the public for five years if it’s a really compelling and provocative piece. Maybe only like six months for some work. Otherwise, the mural functions as an oak tree and becomes naturally a part of the environment. 

*****

This spring, Gaia has a show in the Netherlands with Haarlem Beeld and then afterwards will be traveling the country producing murals throughout the summer. 

 

Art images courtesy of Gaia, all other photos by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt

This story is from Issue 10: Power,

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