Illegal street art calls out owners of Baltimore's vacant properties

BALTIMORE - Artists and a city activist are taking on the people they consider slumlords.  They're illegally painting on property to make sure you know who owns the buildings that are bringing down your neighborhood.

They are as much a part of Baltimore as crab cakes and bee-hived Hons, but the vacant homes that fill entire blocks of the city are not a bastion of pride.  Carol Ott, who writes the Baltimore Slumlord Watch blog, considers them a black eye, saying, "I think it's shameful."

The vacants you'll find around the city have crumbling facades, peeling paint and trash.  They're signs of trouble at the property and an indicator of a large city problem.  Records show more than 16,000 vacant buildings dot Baltimore's landscape.  Ott says, "They send a message to the community that you don't matter."

PHOTOS | Vacants battled with art and QR codes

It's a message that rings out when vacant buildings sit, age and slowly become another downward drag on already struggling neighborhoods.  It happens while the property owners hide in anonymity.

Recently a group of renegade artists began shouting the names of landlords who've let their properties fall apart.  One of them, Nether, tells ABC2, "There's really nobody who is willing to call these people out."

This group is doing just that.  They're putting identifying information about the landlords out in public like a Wild West wanted poster.  Nether says, "I don't really care if they like me."

Instead, Nether and the other street artists he's drafted for the project would like to see these property owners clean up their mess.  For now they're doing it for them, turning these forgotten homes into a source of pride through Wall Hunters: The Slumlord Project.  It's an effort that brings the artists together with Ott, who also handles the Housing Policy Watch.

The people involved consider the neglect they've seen criminal, but they're the ones breaking the law to send a message, painting murals to get people talking about a widespread problem.  Nether says, "What we're really trying to do is promote a larger conversation on Baltimore's vacancy issue."

The conversation starts by making vacants something to look at, according to the artists, and ends with calling out the person who made them something to ignore.  And each mural tells a story.  One on the 900 block of Arlington Avenue depicts a man looking toward a hammer as a landlord looks at a circle of black.  Street artist Nanook, who created the piece, says it's a depiction of the struggle for people in the neighborhood to rehab these vacant properties as the landlord turns his back.  He says, "I would say it's a black hole of investment."

Now those investors are listed in black and white next to the vibrant murals, their names now public, and their past histories available by scanning QR codes that accompany every painting in the project.  Ott says she's not intimidated by putting the information out there, telling us, "There's nothing to fear.  They can't even clean up their own property."

It is the artists who provide the beauty for this project.  But Ott is the backbone.  She digs up the details about who owns the property.  And she's willing to take on any lawyer, LLC or even city leaders. 

One of the vacants that's been painted for the project is a home that tax records show is owned by Baltimore's Mayor and City Council.  It's a house that's been closed up because of lead paint.  Artists painted the building with a picture of a little boy whose life was impacted by that situation.  It's a statement Ott thinks has to be made if the city wants to correct the vacant building epidemic in Baltimore, "If you're not going to take care of your own business, you can't expect anybody else to take care of theirs."

So far five murals have been painted around Baltimore.  The group hopes to put up a total of 15.  They're taking suggestions for new vacants to profile and paint. 

We contacted Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office for a comment on the city-owned vacants and the city's stance on this project.  We did not get a response. The other LLC's whose vacants are featured in the project do not list phone numbers in the state's online tax database.

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