Arts & Culture

Off the Wall

Baltimore's most notorious graffiti artist tries to go straight, juggling family, school, sobriety, and an art world that just might embrace him.

Frank Arthur doesn’t just tell stories—he acts them out. Between bites of a Reuben at an Arbutus diner, Arthur recalls creeping past the Pepsi building on a summer night in 1986 with Scrappy G, One Way, and a few other graffiti writers in tow. An assortment of construction equipment and trucks concealed them from cars whizzing past on I-83. The expressway was being widened, and Arthur and his crew had determined that an enormous pile of metal support beams would be their next urban canvas.

“We wrote our butts off,” recalls Arthur.

“All of a sudden, one of the guys hollered, ‘Yo!'” Arthur hollers it, too, startling a few diners across the room. “Sorry about that,” he says, turning in their direction with a sheepish smile. He continues at (pretty much) the same volume but more excitedly.

“Then, I saw these high beams and crouched behind a truck,” he says, going into a crouch next to the booth. “Four cop cars flew past me and started chasing my friends, so I ran across the highway”—he stands and runs in place—”and see that the cops had them bent over a car. I felt like I had to do something, so I figured I’d create a diversion, and maybe they could get away.

“Me being an idiot, I grabbed four or five big rocks and threw them at the cop cars. Bop! Bop! Bop! Bop! The cops jumped down and thought someone was shooting at them. They called in ‘shots fired’ on the radio, and, as I jumped over one of those Jersey walls, a helicopter came out of nowhere and was right on me, so I ran under the highway near the Jones Falls.”

Arthur slides back into the booth and continues eating his sandwich. “I felt like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive,” he says. “I was climbing and jumping off of things, and, at one point, I had to stop. My body was going into convulsions, and it was scary, a total adrenaline rush. I was shaken.”

He did, though, manage to get away—by plunging into the Jones Falls and wading his way toward Druid Hill Avenue—that’s how his signature tag originated, and “Shaken” started appearing all over the city. By the late-1980s/early-1990s, it was everywhere, and Arthur was Baltimore’s most prolific—and most wanted—street artist, drawing the ire of property owners, community associations, and law enforcement.

If you drove the Jones Falls Expressway, the Beltway, or I-97; rode the subway, Light Rail, or Amtrak; or walked along Pratt or Lombard Streets, you saw his work. His distinctive tags and large, colorful pieces of interlocking letters were emblazoned on warehouses, exit ramps, overpasses, water towers, tunnels, and even the Mechanic Theatre and National Aquarium. By his own estimate, he completed thousands of pieces.

It was a compulsion, an addiction stronger than any drug, he says. “If you put sex, drugs, and rock and roll into one pill and called it graffiti, I ate that pill,” says Arthur. “Then, I spent years painting at all hours of the night and running from the police.”

Although he got away that night in 1986, he notes ruefully, “Sometimes, I didn’t get away, and I got in a lot of trouble.”

Over the years, the Pigtown native certainly paid a steep price for his graffiti habit. Although Arthur credits graffiti with saving him from the hardscrabble streets of Southwest Baltimore, it also landed him in jail, facilitated a long cycle of drug abuse and criminal hijinks, and nearly killed him.

But for the first time in years, he’s sober and not caught up in the criminal justice system. Now 43, he’s trying to go straight, raise a family, and get an education. He even paints on canvasses now instead of walls.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, he’s also being celebrated for the same artwork that got him in so much trouble. Arthur’s work appears in two recent coffee table books, The History of American Graffiti and Tools of Criminal Mischief, and he flew to Los Angeles in April for the opening of the much-ballyhooed Art in the Streets exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where he signed books in the gift shop for three-and-a-half hours.

“Everyday, I pinch myself, because I can’t believe everything that’s happened,” he says. “I open my eyes in the morning, look around the room, and think, ‘I can’t believe I’m alive.'”

Arthur lives at the Beltway Motel where Washington Boulevard crosses 695. It’s a small, two-room apartment: living room, bedroom, with small bath and tiny kitchen. Album covers of classic-rock records by the likes of Led Zeppelin and Boston line the wall behind the sofa, along with a Star Wars poster and a few Marvel comic-book covers. A half-dozen sketchbooks sit on a coffee table, with a stack of books—including 8,789 Words of Wisdom and a dog-eared copy of The Narcotics Anonymous Blue Book, which Arthur says he reads “constantly.”

Arthur doesn’t own a cell phone or car and says he’s grateful to have a bus pass, which gets him to classes at Catonsville Community College and to his girlfriend’s house. A social-services check gives him enough money to cover expenses and buy some art supplies—stretched canvases, pens and markers, brushes, and tubes of acrylic paints are stacked neatly around the room.

“Living here, I don’t bother anybody,” he says. “I come and go and do my artwork. That’s it. In fact, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

Growing up, he wasn’t encouraged to pursue art. “Everybody I knew had a hustle, and alcohol and drugs ran rampant,” he says. “If you didn’t do drugs, people looked at you like you had seven eyes and fifteen lips. It was like, ‘Stay back. You don’t do drugs.’ That was ingrained in me all my life.”

Although Arthur describes his family as “very dysfunctional,” he was particularly close to his father, who took him to the nearby B&O Railroad Museum and to movies at the Patterson and the Hollywood theaters. His father also bought him his first can of spray paint in 1984, after Arthur expressed an interest in graffiti. He even kept watch as Arthur wrote his first tags in a tunnel near the rail museum, figuring graffiti would be a passing fad like break-dancing and skateboarding had been for his 15-year-old son. “But he was wrong,” says Arthur. “It consumed me.”

Arthur had already noticed graffiti tags along Pratt Street and started photographing them with a cheap camera. “It was totally mysterious,” he recalls. “It fascinated me, and I wondered why these guys were going around writing their names.”

He explored other parts of the city and discovered more tags, as well as large, colorful pieces by the likes of Revolt and Dillinger emblazoned on walls. “Those big pieces really blew my mind,” he recalls, “and after seeing them, I knew I’d do graffiti for the rest of my life. I also knew I needed to get around town more.”

Which is how Arthur became the least likely member of the Southwestern High lacrosse team.

Arthur played lacrosse, so he could scout locations and check out graffiti in other neighborhoods. “Heading to games on the bus, I’d look for the best walls and map out spots I wanted to hit,” he says.

During a game at Northwestern, a massive wall within eyeshot of the playing field caught his attention. “All I could concentrate on was that wall, which was painted with a lot of nice graffiti,” says Arthur. “The coach was yelling, ‘Frank! Frank!’ The ball was whizzing past me, but I didn’t care. I was mesmerized by that wall.”

Arthur got kicked out of school for fighting in 1985. By that time, he was shoplifting paint and markers, smoking pot, and drinking. He got booted from his mother’s house for writing graffiti and went to live with his grandmother, who turned him out after finding cans of spray paint hidden in her laundry-detergent pail. Homeless, Arthur stole sheets off of clotheslines and slept in freight trains when he didn’t have anywhere else to go.

He also frequented Jules’ Loft, an underground club at the corner of Eutaw and Mulberry streets that booked hardcore bands and attracted skate punks and graffiti writers. One night, Arthur stood transfixed as legendary artist Cuba executed a large piece on one of the club’s walls. “It was basically a step-by-step graffiti lesson,” says Arthur. “‘Here’s the outline. Here’s the filler. Do the other outline. Clean up that outline.’ It was like watching Bob Ross, [host of The Joy of Painting] on PBS. It made complete sense to me.”

Over time, Arthur helped develop a lettering style that’s unique to Baltimore. In The History of American Graffiti, it’s described as “starting small and flaring out left to right, staying straight along the bottom, and finishing with a crazy flourish.”

“Each city has its own style,” says Arthur. “I’ll see these panel trucks from out of town that have been written on, and I’ll instantly say to myself, ‘That’s Philly. That’s New York. That’s Miami.'”

He opens old sketchbooks and flips past rough pencil drawings that eventually evolve into intricate outlines of interlocking letters and finally full-color sketches. There are hundreds of them. “This is Baltimore,” says Arthur. “We’re notorious for our hand styles, which are unique. When people worldwide see that style, they know, ‘Oh my god, that’s Baltimore.’ You can spot it immediately, because it’s distinctive. It’s like Name That Tune. You hear the first three notes of The Beatles, and you know it’s The Beatles. Seeing the Baltimore style is like that. You can identify it right away.”

But it’s fleeting, because graffiti, by its very nature, is so temporary. “Graffiti’s like a sand castle, because it isn’t permanent,” says Arthur. “It gets taken down or painted over, and I’ve lost so many pieces over the years. I’ve risked my freedom and been out there painting my butt off all night, and the very next day, they’ve painted over it.”

But Arthur maintains the impermanence is far outweighed by the adventure and exposure graffiti offers. As he describes it: “It’s three in the morning, the moon’s out, and you’re hearing gunshots—it’s kind of poetic doing artwork like that. You might be painting along the Light Rail, and you’re aware that a normal civilian will never experience the Light Rail between stations. You see things from subway tunnels, water towers, on top of buildings, and under freeway overpasses—things about the city that most people never see, because they just ride along in an air-conditioned car.

“And there’s no middleman when you’re out there painting like that. There’s no gallery involved, and you’re not begging anyone to accept you. When you’re out there on those trains and along those highways, you’re speaking to everybody. On a highway, thousands of people will see your work between seven and ten in the morning. You don’t have to put an ad in the paper or go around convincing people to see your art—you’re just out there.”

Arthur became especially fond of painting freight trains. He was fascinated by the notion that something he created could end up practically anywhere. “Once you do a train, it rolls, and it might go all the way to California,” he notes. “You will never see that train again, but that’s not important. What’s important is that a little piece of you escapes the quicksand of life in the ‘hood.”

Arthur escaped that life, barely. But it’s still a daily struggle. At noon, it’s nearly time for him to visit the drug counselor he’s been seeing for the past few years, a woman he credits with saving his life. Two years ago, she diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and explained that he’d been using drugs and alcohol to medicate himself.

By that time, Arthur had been in and out of jail for two decades. His brushes with the law were initially graffiti related, and, according to Arthur, began in 1988 when he got nabbed for painting 13 city subway trains. He was 20 years old and got sent to Hagerstown, a medium-security prison.

He got out a year later and continued writing graffiti with even greater determination.

By then, he was Public Enemy Number One to community groups like the Union Square Association whose members saw him as a vandal and nothing more. The Shaken tag was seemingly everywhere, so when Arthur got busted again, it made the papers, and the Union Square Association’s president told The Sun that she and her neighbors were “delighted, absolutely ecstatic.”

After another stint in Hagerstown, Arthur spiraled out of control, caught in what he calls “the modern day black plague of heroin and crack.” He dealt drugs, shoplifted, and battled addiction for 13 years, until a court finally ordered him to see his current counselor. “I wanted to change, because I knew I was gonna die,” says Arthur, who by then also had a young son, three-year-old Krylon (named after a brand of spray paint), to consider.

He says the counselor, who asked to not be identified in this article, not only diagnosed the bipolar disorder and prescribed medication, she also taught him morals and how to do the right thing. She paged through his sketchbooks and encouraged him to paint, on canvasses and walls that are legal. And she challenged him to get sober for a year. “She said, ‘You have a lot of talent and drive,'” recalls Arthur, “‘and if you just stop doing drugs for one year, there’s no telling what could happen.'”

Arthur’s been sober for more than 18 months. He regularly attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings and takes art classes, like Color Theory, at Community College of Baltimore, Catonsville. “As a graffiti artist, I thought I was Mr. Color, but I had no idea,” he says. He admits to being intimidated by all the technology students use these days, but he hopes to get past that and someday take classes at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

On weekends, he sees Krylon and often finds himself, lying awake, watching his son sleep. “I’ll have to snap a rubber band against my arm to see if this is actually happening to me,” he says. “Then, I’ll get him up and make breakfast, and he’ll start singing Beatles songs. I’ll hear him in the other room singing ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ and I’ll start tearing up.” Arthur tears up just talking about it.

He also has a two-year-old boy, Lykaios, with his current girlfriend, and likes taking the kids to Patapsco State Park whenever he can. “Kids just want your time,” says Arthur, “and nothing touches doing the father thing. It gave me a completely different perspective, by making me think of someone other than myself. It also made me try harder.”

He’s been beating the pavement, trying to catch a break as an artist. He paints bright and bold acrylics on canvas, mostly pop culture stuff like animated Beatles figures and Transformers characters with an occasional graffiti-inspired piece in the mix. When told they bring to mind Pop artists like Lichtenstein and Warhol, Arthur excitedly grabs a nearby sketchbook and turns to drawings of National Bohemian beer cans that were inspired by Warhol’s soup cans. He hopes to complete a series of Natty Boh paintings, as part of a larger series of iconic Baltimore images.

He hasn’t approached many galleries, opting instead for less traditional outlets like Body Mod, a tattoo parlor in Annapolis Mall; Pedal Pushers, a Severna Park bike shop; and Trax On Wax, a Catonsville record store. He also paints legal walls as opportunities arise and recently traveled to Braddock, PA, near Pittsburgh, where the mayor invited dozens of graffiti artists to paint an abandoned building as part of a neighborhood revitalization effort.

It’s emblematic of a shift in public opinion with regard to graffiti and whether it’s legitimate art or not. The debate goes on, but the Art in the Streets exhibit in Los Angeles certainly helped put the stamp of art-world approval on graffiti and street art. It’s been leaning in that direction for years, thanks to high-profile work by the likes of Shepard Fairey, who famously created the Obama “Hope” poster, and Banksy, who directed the acclaimed documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop.

“That show was a whirlwind of respect,” says Arthur, who was blown away by the reception he got. “A lot of people I met had the American Graffiti book open to the Baltimore section. Some people told me, ‘I’ve been following your work since the 1990s.’ I had no idea.”

Roger Gastman, who co-wrote the American Graffiti book and co-curated the L.A. show, calls Arthur “an icon of Baltimore graffiti.”

“Frank is more committed to his art than pretty much anyone I’ve ever met,” says Gastman, who’s worked on projects with both Fairey and Banksy.

Jeff Vespa, who used to write graffiti with Arthur, agrees. Vespa, who is now a celebrity photographer and editor-at-large for Life magazine, says that his old friend is extraordinarily dedicated. “In my business, I meet a lot of creative and motivated people,” says Vespa. “But I’ve never met anyone as motivated as Frank.”

Vespa, who’s based in Los Angeles, caught up with Arthur during his visit to the city. “It was good to seem him calmed down and focused,” he says. “It’s especially satisfying, because now people really respect what he does. People at the museum were freaking out about it and asking for his autograph, and it was great seeing him in that world. He should have many years ahead of him making art, if he can just keep doing the right thing.”

On his way to meet his drug counselor, Arthur stops at the Corner Florist in Lansdowne. He comes here to get her a bouquet, which always includes a sunflower, whenever he has an extra $10. “It’s not much,” he says, “but she fought a battle with me and pulled me from the dark side.”

On the way inside, he notices someone has tagged the shop’s wall—an indecipherable black scrawl on the white siding—and winces. It’s obvious he doesn’t approve. Arthur mentions the tag to the storeowner, a middle-aged woman with a no-nonsense demeanor. “It’s a shame what they did out there,” he says. “I’m an artist, and maybe I could help you out by painting some big, colorful flowers over it. I could really make that wall look great.”

The owner says she’ll consider it, but she’ll need approval from the neighborhood association. “I understand all about neighborhood associations,” Arthur tells her, with a grin.

Apparently, it’s not the first time the wall has been tagged. “It seems like these graffiti writers have some sort of need to do this,” she says. “It’s like it’s their life or something.”

“I know,” says Arthur. “I used to be one of those guys.”

He reaches across the counter for his flowers and leaves a $10 bill on the counter. “But I’m under new management now,” he says, heading toward the door, “and I’d be happy to help you out.”

Once outside, he stops abruptly and peers intently at the bouquet he’s holding. “Wow,” he says. “Look at the color of that sunflower.”