Street art can be a powerful way to call attention to urban blight. From painting vacant houses orange in Detroit to turning an entire favela in Brazil into a canvas for bright colors, art and design interventions can offer a visible mark pointing to what's missing: a healthy, functioning cityscape. These projects can also garner a flurry of initial attention from the media, but what happens after the art goes up and the journalists go home?
In the case of "Wall Hunters," a project that brought attention to absentee landlords in Baltimore by painted murals on vacant and dilapidated housing in the city, the aftermath of the artistic endeavor has led to lawsuits.
Since 2009, Carol Ott has run a blog called Baltimore Slumlord Watch that catalogs the locations and owners of the city's vacant properties. Ott is now facing two lawsuits for property damage because of her collaboration with artists on the Wall Hunters project. QR codes were included next to each of the murals that linked to Ott's blog posts detailing the property owner's name and address.
According to the Baltimore Sun, the lawsuits, filed by the business trusts that own two of the buildings Wall Hunters painted over, accuse Ott of trespassing and causing "a mural to be erected."
Ott told the Wall Street Journal that she advised the Wall Hunters team—led by a street artist going by the name of Nether—as they looked for properties. (She declined to comment for this piece in light of the litigation, and neither her attorney nor Nether responded to requests for comment.)
As Nether wrote of the project in September, "the art was a form of civil disobedience necessitated by the City’s decades-long failure to grapple with their neighborhoods’ demise." In some ways, Wall Hunters has been a successful artistic intervention, calling attention to the issue of urban decay and even effecting change. Ott's blog and Wall Hunters garnered plenty of publicity, and shortly after Wall Hunters' first installation—a raven painted on two row houses in East Baltimore—the city tore the dangerous buildings down. "Who said art can't change things?" reads the caption on the Wall Hunters website.
In the same blog post, Nether writes that "residents and even neighborhood associations welcomed the attention," but despite the successes of the project, the lawsuits against Ott highlight the limits of using illicit art as advocacy. Still, contrary to what would seem to be in the property owners' interests, the suits have also drawn even more attention to Ott's blight-fighting endeavors. Now, far more people are watching.