Bright bursts of color splattered concrete floors, canvas-covered walls and the gray sweatpants of former Pittsburgh Steeler Baron Batch at his Point Breeze art studio on Monday.
That he’s wanted on an arrest warrant alleging 30 counts of criminal mischief doesn’t worry him, he said, because it’s an opportunity to give a face to Pittsburgh graffiti and the inspiration behind free, outdoor expression.
Investigators estimate Batch, 28, is responsible for $16,200 worth of damage across the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, Mon Wharf parking lot and Hot Metal Bridge, according to a warrant issued Monday.
“I got so comfortable with painting on things outside, I just was riding my bike and just tagged the trail,” he said, using a plastic spreader to add yellow streaks to one of his signature elephant paintings already decked in bright pinks and pastel blues. “I was used to painting on things outside. It was new for me, pushed the boundaries too far.”
Batch said he likes being the “bad artist" but also bringing people together. Maybe the criminal investigatory process, which he said he’s been involved with from the beginning, will help open the broader conversation about public art and give artists more areas to showcase their work.
“I can’t be irresponsible and be like, ‘I didn’t know,’” he said. “I’m not playing that card.”
Batch isn’t the first artist to have a run-in with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police’s graffiti squad. Earlier this month, 30-year-old Jerome Michael Charles, was arrested after police said he caused $46,000 in damage by tagging several locations, including in the Strip District, Lawrenceville and on Chatham University’s campus. In February, 22-year-old Max Emiliano Gonzales confessed to causing more than $114,000 in damage in the East End.
Friends of the Riverfront Executive Director Thomas Baxter has been in touch with various rogue artists over the years, most after tagging public spaces along the Three Rivers Heritage trails. Some artwork gets removed right away, he said, but some gets to stay.
“We’ve seen a little bit of negative feedback, but I can tell you the overwhelming feedback has all been positive,” Baxter said. “And that’s why we want to talk about what’s appropriate and what’s not.”
Batch, who said he’s planning to meet with police detectives on Wednesday, said he’s hopeful he and other artists get that chance.
“We’re looking forward to sitting down with him, to really think strongly about what is the possibility,” Baxter said. “We just want to take our time and go through the issue … where is that forum possible.”
Some graffiti interferes with the user experience, Baxter said.
“People that use the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, they’re there for nature, they’re there for exercise, they’re there for the experience of the riverfronts that didn’t exist years ago,” he said. “They really want an unencumbered experience that doesn’t include any messaging.”
But elsewhere, like Beltzhoover, Lawrenceville and the South Side, property owners have offered their buildings as canvases for Batch’s work as the first in an ongoing 20-piece mural project. Batch has finished nine at no cost to the building owners and is exploring the idea of doing some in other cities.
Social media shots of his neon-colored, thick-trunked elephants and Butler Street’s headdress-clad skull abound. That feedback tells Batch he’s doing something right, he said.
“(Like) the doors down on the South Side,” said Batch, grinning. “People were just stopping and jumping out of their cars and running up to them and holding their babies up in front of them and taking pictures.”
Batch said he feels like he’s gotten to a comfortable point with his business. Not only is he reaching more people with his public art, but he hosts events and a weekly brunch at his original studio in Homestead, has his Angry Man salsa company and is creating a mini documentary about his mural project.
Sprawled across a brown, pintucked leather sofa, Batch said he’s stepping back to let the brand he’s built flourish.
“I’m realizing that sometimes it’s good just to pump the brakes and let what you built, build itself.”
90.5 WESA's Megan Harris contributed to this report.