Gregg Deal’s murals in Baltimore serve as a reminder: “this was Indian land first.”
“Okay, this is the douchiest thing I’m gonna say,” Gregg Deal said three minutes into our interview. “Just google my name and you’ll find all kinds of stuff.”
The Colorado-based artist, who is American Indian, is no stranger to interviews. He’s been on The Daily Show as part of his activism with Change the Name, a movement lobbying to changing the name of Washington D.C.’s football team. He’s been written up in Al Jazeera and The Washington Post. His murals are featured around the country. (And yes, that was the douchiest thing he said in our interview. He’s typically quite humble and down-to-earth, apologizing for eating while we spoke over the phone).
And Deal, a former D.C. resident who lived in the city for 17 years, even has a number of works up in Baltimore. He came at the request of Michael Owen, creator of the Baltimore Love Project, which is responsible for many of the murals around the city.
It was soon after the protests of 2015, a fraught time for the politics of the city. “So there’s a lot of conversations about whose city it is and who does it belong to,” Deal said.
“But as an indigenous person I always bring in the trump card of, well this is Indian land first.”
Deal, who belongs to Nevada’s Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, doesn’t overtly claim land as Indian in his work, rather he reflects the subtleties of what it means to be an American Indian in a nation where Indian presence has been all but erased. In his own experience, Deal said people might not always be able to tell that he’s native – if his hear is short, for example – but that doesn’t change reality. “I still exist, I’m still indigenous.”
One portrait in Baltimore shows two boys facing each other — one with long hair, the other in a hoodie. “Which one’s more Indian?” Deal said. “And the answer is that they’re both Indian.”
But the act of representation doesn’t come without its problems, Deal said. In Baltimore and in other cities, large artworks by well-known muralists may help renew interest in a depressed neighborhood — and in turn help catalyze the process of gentrifying. “What sucks about that is as an artist, you’re trying to make a living and do well,” Deal said. “And then you know you ran into this moral dilemma of painting murals in spaces that are gonna displace – where people are gonna be displaced, and you might have a contribution to that.”