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Meet the NFL’s Banksy

Baron Batch doesn’t want to be known as a “former Steeler.” He wants to be known as an artist helping to transform a city — even if he has to break some laws along the way.

Conrad Grissom
Conrad Grissom

There’s an artist who bikes daily on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail in Pittsburgh. As he rides, he thinks of Banksy, who’s one of his biggest inspirations, and who travels the world creating public art wherever he pleases.

One day earlier this year, the artist had an idea: “Why not do an installation on the whole trail?” he thought. “I wanted to do something where, when you ride one direction on the trail, you see images that tell you a certain story, and if you go the other way, it tells another story.”

There are a few differences between the artist and Banksy, however. A key one: Banksy is anonymous, slipping into cities to paint provocative wall art and sneaking out without detection or arrest. This Pittsburgh artist is not.

He used to play football for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“There was never a chance for me to say, ‘Let me use anonymity,’ because everyone in this city knows who I am,” said Baron Batch, who was a running back in football-mad Pittsburgh from 2011 to 2013.

Some players turn to coaching after their NFL careers conclude. Others try their hands at broadcasting. Still others take their money and invest in real estate or restaurants. Retirees don’t typically become artists intent on changing the culture of the city in which they played.

But Batch isn’t typical.

In June, two arrest warrants were issued for Batch, who faced 38 counts of criminal mischief for tagging locations around Pittsburgh, including the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. It didn’t take long for members of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Graffiti Task Force — yes, that’s real — to figure out Batch was behind the trademark elephant symbol that appeared all over the trail. Batch had also spray-painted an open eye on garbage cans and pavement that was consistent with his paintings. The words and phrases were also clearly Batch’s: A stylized “FREE” appeared throughout; “Change your thoughts to change your stars an open mind is open bars” appeared over one eye, according to Penn Live. “Go” then “Pass Go!” appeared on the pavement where people would bike.

Batch had actually put some spray-paint tags on the trail the year before, but limited himself to an obscure area where graffiti was common, and his contributions went unnoticed. For this trailwide installation, however, he had a mission: put his spray-painted creations all over the trail to let as many people as possible see them.

Batch’s three artistic heroes are Banksy, for his rule-breaking; Andy Warhol, for his repetitive imagery; and Dr. Seuss, for his narratives. All three influences were on display in this installation, which Batch began in May.

When detectives showed up at Batch’s home, southeast of Pittsburgh, they handed him dozens of photos of the tags and asked if he was responsible. “Absolutely,” he said. (Pittsburgh police sources confirmed Batch’s account.) Police estimated the damage at $16,200.

“It was so funny,” Batch said when discussing the detectives’ arrival. “They were showing me photos of tags that said, ‘Love more,’ and, ‘You were made to bloom,’ and these inspirational things are supposed to be seen as incriminating photos.”

Conrad Grissom
Conrad Grissom

Pittsburgh police issued a warrant after the meeting. Batch turned himself in and promised to stop tagging the trail, and the nearby Hot Metal bridge and Mon Wharf parking lot. He did not promise to stop putting his art all over the place, saying that while it won’t involve spray paint, he’ll still find ways to share his work as publicly as possible. “There are different ways to distribute art publicly and I will find every single one of those,” he told The Ringer. He said he wouldn’t apologize for trying to inspire people because “the goal of an artist is to have their art seen. I said I’ll accept the consequences and the cops were cool with that.” Batch was arraigned and released and is awaiting sentencing.

Batch called Pittsburgh a “big small town” that needs to rethink how it views art in the public space. He’s trying to help facilitate the development of what he describes as a rapidly-growing art culture in the city — even, yes, if he has to break some more rules along the way.

“Does that make me a bad person?” he asked. “I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks. I’m pursuing what I want to pursue. The people that followed me understand I’m doing it for a good reason. As the world sits today I can’t think of a more important time for people to put positive things out in the world and it would be hard to find someone who disagrees with that who isn’t a piece of shit.”

Batch has always pursued his passions, though they might not have been apparent as he made it to the highest level of his sport: “I’ve always been an artist,” he said. “I just happened to be athletic enough to make it to the NFL.”

He dominated Texas high school football while playing for Midland, totaling 2,005 rushing yards as a senior, the third most in the state’s 5A division. He committed to Texas Tech, where he thrived in Mike Leach’s wide-open offense. “The speed’s impressive, but also his work ethic,” Leach told reporters during Batch’s freshman season. “He’s kind of a mature-acting fellow, and he’s real focused. He’s real diligent about taking care of his business.”

Batch became known for his ability to bounce off of tackles and find the extra yard.

At 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, he wasn’t projected as an every-down, workhorse back, but still showed enough to get drafted in the seventh round in 2011. Later that year he became a training camp darling, earning buzz over his emergence as a viable third-down back option. But he tore his ACL in an August non-contact drill and missed his entire rookie season. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert told reporters at the time that Batch was having a “great camp and he’s just an awesome kid.”

Batch has always been an artist, even when pencil and paper were his only tools: “One of my first hustles was trading drawings for bags of chips on the bus in school,” he said of his elementary school days. While rehabbing his knee, he decided to use more of his time to paint, a longtime hobby of his. He realized painting while he was healing was cathartic, making him more invested in his art until it became a full-blown obsession. “Healing from football gave me the thing I’m most passionate about,” he said of that time period.

In 2012, he recovered well enough to play, and scored his only NFL touchdown that year. Still, he failed to regain the form that he’d displayed before the injury, and after missing the 75-man roster cut coming out of camp in 2013, he retired.

Batch credits football with teaching him certain skills he now relies on as an artist, “like time management or the ability to take massive amounts of information and apply it immediately,” he said. “I love the competitiveness you are able to display and the immediacy of getting validation on whether you beat someone or not, or if you are better than someone or not. But the game of football I did not like.”

Football is, in fact, the reason Batch bikes the trail. Because his body is so sore from his playing days, biking is the only exercise he can do regularly. “Football kills you,” he said. “My body is totally fucked up from it. I don’t regret it because I chose to do it and I did it at a high level and was passionate about it when I did it, but if I had a son and he asked me to play I would say ‘absolutely not.’”

In Batch’s mind, the best thing about football is the name recognition it affords players who want to try something else after stepping away from the game. “Yeah, it’s cool to get paid an NFL paycheck,” Batch said, “but at the same time, it’s even cooler to create something within your own brand that cannot be taken away from you when you retire. Players have to maximize your contacts and the position you’re in.”

Word of Batch’s transition to the art world spread organically in the first few months after he launched his full-time career three years ago. He was famous locally as an ex-Steeler, but had not yet become known around the city as an artist, so he used social media to show his art to the world, and distribute it freely. Though his paintings can cost thousands of dollars — or, as Batch said, “ridiculous amounts of money” — he doesn’t sell the vast majority of them.

He became particularly well known in the past two years for dropping free canvases throughout Pittsburgh, using social media to offer hints on the location so fans and followers can rush to find it. “Better move fast,” read one caption:

Many of the paintings feature his trademark elephants, which are meant to represent that Pittsburgh is one community. When a local Pittsburgh TV station tested the popularity of the drops, asking Batch to leave a painting outside its studio, a worker in a downtown office building identified the location on social media and left work to sprint in high heels to pick it up. It took six minutes.

“The Steeler thing is cool because you appeal to a whole different demographic that likes sports,” he said. “It’s spreading culture into different groups and we are having conversations, as a city, that we need to have about where art belongs in this city. Even when I went to jail for being an artist the headlines are ‘former Steeler.’”

“I’ve been the lightning rod of something that has been needed here for a long time,” said Batch, referring to his personal mission of trying to turn a sports town into an art town. He believes that his arrest started a conversation among the city’s artists. “There’s a lot of spaces that haven’t been thought about as far as incorporating art into,” he said. “In other cities, this sort of art is normal, but Pittsburgh is behind because it’s a sports town.” Batch’s stance on Pittsburgh may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s fueling him to put art anywhere he can, often for free.

Conrad Grissom
Conrad Grissom

Batch said he didn’t stay in Pittsburgh to cash in on his Steelers fame; in fact, it was just the opposite: He wanted the challenge of creating a new legacy in the city where he was already known. “I was not OK with being tagged ‘former Steeler, who played from this time to this time,’” he said.

Since his arrest, he’s met with community leaders like those at the Friends of the Riverfront, the organization that controls the trail, to discuss whether he could legally put his art along the rivers. Batch said the leaders liked his art, and he’s hopeful they can do something in the near future. “For a culture to be built, you can’t operate under the same rules that existed before,” he said.

For Batch, being a boundary-pushing artist isn’t dissimilar to being a running back: When there’s an opening to do something, you have to act immediately. “It’s very much like my previous job in that regard,” he said. “If I’m inspired to do something, I don’t second-guess myself, I don’t ask for permission. That’s my edge.”