At this time last year, artist Baron Batch was facing backlash and $30,000 in fines and legal fees for illegal graffiti he left on several public areas.
"By no means was that an easy mental year for me," he said.
Batch, a former Pittsburgh Steelers player who left the NFL in 2013, has since focused on creating his trademark colorful murals, artwork and installations. Last June, Batch was in the midst of painting several public murals around the city. He said he was so used to doing it, that he just instinctually tagged encouraging messages along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, Mon Wharf Parking lot and Hot Metal Bridge.
And Batch was quick to take ownership of his actions.
“I can’t be irresponsible and be like, ‘I didn’t know,’” he said at the time. “I’m not playing that card.”
It wasn't long after that Pittsburgh Police showed up at his Homestead studio to arrest the artist.
“After the arrest warrant was issued, it was kind of me getting super focused dealing with all the fines and the legal fees and kind of like the blowback from that and just put my head down and continuing what I was doing, really," he said.
In addition to forking over the equivalent of a brand new mid-range car, Batch also faced criticism for his disregard for the law. That criticism was OK with him, because he said it got others thinking about art in a new way.
“It created intelligent discourse about the subject of public art," he said. "And what that looks like and its role in the public sector.”
Part of that conversation was with the Friends of the Riverfront – the group that maintains the trail Batch graffitied.
Ultimately, he partnered with the nonprofit to create the Color Park, a small segment of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail between 4th and 8th streets that's lined with concrete barriers.
Friends of the Riverfront director of stewardship Jeff McCauley said that part of the trail was once home to a concrete factory and the leftover pieces were incorporated along the path. There's more than 100 in total, but Batch and volunteers painted about 20 of them in vibrant hues this spring.
"It was kind of an industrial looking area that, when color was added to it, gives it a whole new vibrancy that it didn’t have in the past," McCauley said.
He said Friends of the Riverfront was eager to partner up with Batch after seeing his graffiti.
“When this happened with Baron, this gave us an opportunity, instead of chastising and moving on, to really spin it into something positive," McCauley said.
— Pittsburgh Police (@PghPolice) July 8, 2017
Batch also recently partnered with his arresting officer, Det. Alphonso Sloan of the Pittsburgh Police's graffiti squad.
The artist has spent the summer mentoring a group of five youths via the Learn and Earn summer program, through the Mayor's office and Homewood Children's Village. Batch and Sloan helped the mentees create a mural in Space Gallery downtown.
Sloan is also an artist and, as a police officer, he’s in a unique position to understand both points of view – that Batch’s graffiti, done illegally was wrong, but it was also the means to community engagement and new ideas about art.
“He pretty much made amends for it, but I think the artistic value of the work is important," Sloan said. "But, he offended some people...So he kind of has a fan base and a hate base at the same time.”
Batch said the tens of thousands of dollars he paid, though didn't stifle his business, were enough to make him think a little differently about money.
"I'm giving myself, like a $20 a week allowance," he said. "And just learning how to just live without money. Now, the beauty in that, on the other side of this, I'm now a person that I don't ... need anything, but some paint and a canvas."
Batch is also dabbling in some new ventures. He purchased the space next door to his Studio AM in Homestead and plans to eventually turn the current studio and brunch space into a wellness center.
"Over this last year, we've been doing a lot of health programming, yoga classes, all of that," he said.
He said he hopes to turn the space into a "personal development and health spa" next year.
In the meantime, he’s still creating art. And one year later, he is unapologetic about his graffiti.
“I would happily break the rules every single time because the rule is not damaging anyone, it's not harming anyone, but it is helping and transforming,” he said.
Detective Sloan hopes Batch doesn't test the city's graffiti laws again.
“We would have to arrest him again,” he said. “I don’t think that he will, but you know, he knows the consequences if he makes that choice again. But I’m hoping it’s just a one-time thing because I hate to arrest someone, you get to work with them, you actually like them.”