The football season is over, but if you’re strolling along the Inner Harbor, you might still see Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. Walk a little further and you’ll see a Billie Holiday campaign poster for this year’s presidential election.

Wondering where it all came from? You have a local competition to thank for these eye-catching sights by local artists on the formerly dull electrical boxes up and down Pratt Street.

The “Wrap the Box” competition is part of Downtown RISE, a revitalization effort by Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration to make this area of the city more appealing. The action plan, which also aims to bring new businesses downtown and improve infrastructure, has an arts-and-culture component that “emphasizes the infusion of arts, culture, entertainment, and placemaking to revitalize the city,” according to a press release.

“We were thinking about how we can use art to beautify public spaces,” said Tonya Miller Hall, a senior adviser of arts and culture for the mayor’s office. “Pratt Street is such a walkable boulevard, so we thought that would be a great way to have the tourists see Baltimore art on display as they cruise the street.”

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The office received over 50 submissions for the competition and enlisted a jury of individuals from the arts and culture team to choose from the submissions.

“We wanted to have a portfolio of work that complemented the environment, complemented the city as a whole and [was] also a ‘feast for your eyes’ as you walk along,” said Miller Hall, a Baltimore native. “We have some local heroes and some Baltimore-themed expressions, so I thought it was great artwork to show.”

Scott recently announced the competition’s winners: 10 different artists or collectives. The winning participants used colorful imagery to highlight the city, including a bright sunflower field, a depiction of a Baltimorean meal with foods like a crab cake, oysters and an orange crush, as well as a collage of all things that symbolize the city that includes the Domino Sugars sign and an oriole bird.

Krittika Mittal’s sunflower field is on the electrical light box by Pratt and Charles streets. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

The winners of the competition received $500 each for their public artwork, but for some, the platform was more important than the money.

One of the winners, Brianna McKay, whose work can be seen at the intersection of Pratt and South streets, was appreciative just to have the opportunity. “I tried to submit things that I knew were more friendly for the public,” she said, adding, “I was actually surprised because the piece that was chosen was the most controversial of all that I submitted.”

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McKay’s winning art pays homage to past Ebony magazine covers with a Black woman taking center stage as she holds a can covered with a revamped Juneteenth flag. Her hair is wrapped around several more like makeshift curlers. In the top right corner, McKay writes: “Are we really free? Oppression is evolving.”

“I wouldn’t consider myself to be a controversial artist, but I’m not ignorant to the fact that some of my pieces may not be received as well,” she said.

Several other “Wrap the Box” finalists posted their joy over winning on social media. Creative Nomads, the group responsible for the depiction of the late Orioles’ third baseman Brooks Robinson, thanked Scott for “the opportunity to continue to add to the artistic landscape of Baltimore!”

“How awesome that this image is steps away from Camden Yards?!” they wrote on Instagram.

Creative Nomads created the Brooks Robinson design for the "Wrap the Box" entry at Pratt and Howard streets. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Ivy Rose Smith, who worked on the Sharp Street box, which is covered in classic Baltimore sights from Mr. Trash Wheel to a “Greatest City in America” bench, wrote that it was “a huge moment” to have her art selected.

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“I’ve lived in Baltimore my whole life, and so has my family on both sides. My great-grandmother was a painter and all of her paintings were of Baltimore City-based places, one of which is only a few blocks from my home,” she said. “Being able to be a part of a public art project in the city that I love so dearly not only honors my inner child but honors my ancestors.”

This city-backed “Wrap the Box” initiative is not the first time Baltimore has seen public art contests contribute to the look downtown. During 2001′s “Fish Out of Water” project, Baltimore’s sidewalks were decorated with around 200 fish sculptures for several months. Leslie Landsman, a National Aquarium worker and the creative director for the exhibit, was inspired after seeing Chicago’s downtown cow sculptures, so she proposed bringing something similar to Baltimore, The Washington Post reported. She took the idea to then-City Councilwoman Catherine Pugh, who in turn brought it to Mayor Martin O’Malley, according to The Baltimore Sun. He approved the idea, giving the city new sights and attracting tourists.

Most recently, community art saw a boost with local creative Juliet Ames’ work on salt boxes, which she began decorating in December 2020. She used the salt boxes to celebrate some of the city’s renowned figures such as newscaster Denise Koch and late DJ K-Swift. Since Ames began, other artists have put their work on salt boxes as well, with Ames estimating that a further 200 boxes have been worked on by 100 artists.

All the public art around the city, in its many different outlets, is a great chance for artists to have their talent seen by residents and tourists alike.

“I know the amount of talent in this city. I can only imagine what the other submissions were,” said McKay of the “Wrap the Box” contest. “To be chosen feels really good and definitely fulfilling.”

Taji Burris has covered the Baltimore music scene since 2015 for outlets such as The Working Title and The 4th Quarter, and now at the Baltimore Banner.

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