Graffiti artists Max Gonzales and Shane Pilster are leaving their mark all over Wilkinsburg — in broad daylight — with the blessing of the property owners.

Several years ago, their form of self-expression would’ve landed them in jail. Gonzales, known by his tag “GEMS,” was named Public Enemy No. 1 by the Pittsburgh Police Department’s Graffiti Task Force.

These days, Gonzales and Pilster just want to beautify their neighborhood and, eventually, other areas of the city.

Photo courtesy of Shane Pilster.

The Wilkinsburg residents noticed numerous abandoned buildings and lots in the borough. After tracking down a few owners, they cleared brush and debris from the sites and added their brand of color to the walls.

“There’s a stigma attached to graffiti. A piece of art is only as nice as the context it’s in,” Gonzales says. “If it’s in a lot filled with garbage, people are going to associate it with vandalism. We’re trying to recontextualize graffiti.”

Pilster, a mural artist, web designer and urban art curator for Rivers of Steel, first approached Wilkinsburg Borough Council last year about adding public art to blighted areas. Officials were receptive to the idea, but grant money is needed to take the project to another level. Right now, Pilster and Gonzales are buying the paint and garbage bags and relying on volunteers to help pick up trash.

The pair hopes to bring in artists from around the world, pay them for their time and creativity, provide them with materials and protective equipment — including gloves, masks and hand sanitizer — and rent dumpsters for the debris.

Gonzales, who is originally from Chicago, says cabin fever increased his desire to get outside and paint. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s unable to go to his job as a teaching artist at Carnegie Library’s Homewood branch. Collaborating with his friend and neighbor on the grassroots effort is keeping his creative juices flowing.

After painting five large murals, the team recently decorated two face mask drop boxes for Protohaven, a nonprofit makerspace in Wilkinsburg. After forming an alliance with (mask) MAKERS PGH, the organization built four bins, which give about 300 volunteer stitchers a place to donate their handiwork without person-to-person contact. All mask donations must follow strict procedures to ensure they are made with the correct materials and template and are sealed properly with a label.

Drop boxes will be installed soon at the Free Store Wilkinsburg and East End Cooperative Ministry. They will be emptied daily. Protohaven will soon release drop box building plans to the public.

“Radiant Hall, another organization in the (mask)MAKERS PGH alliance, hired Hemispheric Conservations: Urban Art Project (HCUAP, pronounced, ‘hiccup’), to paint and breathe life into the boxes and show how we can care for one another,” says Saige Baxter

Protohaven’s community coordinator. “These artists help to bring a visual story to the public eye, so that locals can see the value of the drop boxes. Allowing artists to paint the drop boxes also provides a sense of comfort and warmth to each location that they activate.”

Mask Donation Bins

Protohaven’s mask donation drop boxes were designed by Alexis Caldero and built by Jeff Greene, Adam Nelson and other volunteers. Photo courtesy of Max Gonzales.

In the near future, Gonzales and Pilster hope to create a “Welcome to Wilkinsburg” sign and other works that focus on the history of the community, which is experiencing a rebirth. They’re looking for more rundown sites in need of a makeover.

Pilster, a San Francisco native who curates the graffiti walls at the Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark, says he wants to legitimize street art and give artists a legal forum in which to thrive.

“If you live in a city, graffiti is going to exist. You have to coexist with it,” Pilster says. “Other cities have created corridors where people can paint. It’s appreciated more and it attracts international artists. This could definitely be something similar.”