Baltimore street artist Toven claims not to be political.
But it seems his intelligence, his vision, his drive to create art from the “beauty and shittiness and decay” of abandoned homes gets the best of him.
“You’re inundated on the street with Coke billboards, but what I do is ‘crime,'” said Toven, whose stark, hand-painted images can be found pasted in alleyways and boarded-up homes throughout the city. A man in a suit bears a snub-nose pistol for a face. William S. Boroughs points a gun down over a fire-escape. Edgar Allen Poe stares sadly from his spacesuit.
“You know Baltimore,” said Toven. “There are whole blocks of empty homes… abused property where people probably lived for 60 years [that have] been left behind and forgotten. I like to make something of that, to try to turn it into something else… I’m not trying to sell you shit you don’t need. I’m just trying to communicate.”
Toven, who prefers not to use his real name, has a real need to communicate. In his 30’s, this ex-graffiti artist has bounced between Baltimore and New York learning the craft and national landscape of street art. He’s been arrested for tagging. He’s worked in the shipping business. He stopped making street art a few years ago. However, since 2008 Toven has undergone the sort of experiences that will either kill an artist or force him to create.
Four years ago, he had an accident at the shipping yard that required the replacement of two discs in his spine, and the placement of a plate and several screws in one of his legs. He’s needed surgery every year since.
Then, last year, Toven and his wife lost their infants, a twin boy and girl, within days of their birth.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but it made me realize how much I loved making art,” said Toven. He said that after his tragedy he spent hours every day in his house painting, making sometimes-disturbing images of violent figures and mutated skulls. Asked if his experiences have influenced the darkness in his work, Toven said, “I hadn’t really thought about it, but recently somebody just mentioned that to me… I guess I really had a dark side to me, and I think it came into the picture. [Art] helped me to realize that life didn’t really suck.”
Since then, Toven’s experiences have become something positive, if challenging, for the rest of us to experience. He’s one of the only wheat-pasters (artists who print out and paste up completed images to walls) in a city where most artists are still doing spraypaint tags, but his skills took time to build.
“Even as a little kid, I would just write on everything.” He said that since he was five years old, he would write his name on walls where his parents wouldn’t notice, in hotel rooms and at school.
When he got older, Toven said, he and his friends in Essex would go out on weekends with full paint cans and come home with empties. On honing his graffiti skills, he said, “You just work on it. You draw for hundreds of hours and practice and practice. I had books filled with hundreds of copies of my name, trying out different styles.” Toven learned to recognize the Philly style, with its fat bubble letters, the “wildstyle” from New York, with its anime-like characters, the italicized Baltimore style.
He wasn’t arrested for tagging until age 15.
Possibly tipped off by somebody with a grudge, the cops came to his house one day while his mom was home. “They had all these photographs on all my shit, and they just laid them out,” he said. “There used to be a whole division for graffiti, and once they figured out your style that was that.”
Fifteen-year-old Toven was sentenced to the “scared straight” program and sent to the Jessup Correctional Institution for a day, where he was threatened in various ‘creative’ ways, and kicked in front of the guards. Asked if the experience made him stop tagging, Toven said “Hell yeah, dude. You’re always scared straight for a while.”
After taking some time off graffiti altogether, Toven moved to New York where artists were beginning to work in black-and-white, wheat-pasted images. He took to the style, which gave him time, he said, to perfect an image before taking it outside and pasting it.
Lately, Toven has been working on a series of his favorite writers, outsiders like Borroughs, Poe, Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac. He said Borroughs’ writing style has impacted his own art.
“Borroughs used to use a technique called cut-ups, where he would take a bunch of pages of free association… and cut them up into four pieces, and paste them back together randomly,” said Toven. “I thought that made a lot of sense, so I started doing a hybrid series.” From this series comes the Poe-astronaut at Howard and 20th, and the gun-faced “Mr. Baltimore.” Toven’s own version of Borroughs can be found by the fire escape in Graffiti Alley, also by the Howard and 20th.
Wheat-pasting, said Toven, “doesn’t have the same criminal feel to it that graffiti does. I’ve had cops drive by and thought, ‘Oh, shit, I’m in trouble.’ But they just nodded and drove right by.”
Toven’s mom, by the way, knows about his art. She thinks he’s stopped doing graffiti, which, for the most part, he has. However, he said chuckling, “not entirely. It’s a hard habit to break.”
All photos courtesy of TOVEN