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To get to one of Detroit’s most powerful and shocking pieces of street art, you have to ignore the barricades set up at the north end of the Dequindre Cut. The idyllic recreational walk way connects the riverfront with Eastern Market and turns into a construction zone below street level.
It’s a dim and dank forest of industrial decay, overgrown weeds and relentless graffiti, some of it profane. But there’s also a fully realized mural on a concrete wall set deep into the west side of the Cut that will stop you in your tracks: A shadowy figure, hiding amid enigmatic calligraphy, wears a blue hooded sweatshirt and points a giant handgun right at you.
Drawing meaning and intensity from its location, the piece is a beautiful nightmare. In the midst of Detroit’s nascent renaissance, the mural, by an anonymous artist, remains a disturbing reminder of the city’s dangerous past and, for too many, its present reality.
“Is it illegal art? Yes,” said Matt Eaton, director-curator of the Red Bull House of Art in Eastern Market and a longtime champion of street art. “Does that take away from its relevance as social commentary? No!”
Eaton spoke last week while giving a Free Press reporter and photographer an annotated tour of some of Detroit’s street-art hotspots, though he had never seen this particular mural until the Free Press led him to it.
“That person who made this has an important message to convey. Who knows what value this person may have in their community. They have something to say, and they’re trying any way they can to say it.”
Street art — both authorized and unauthorized — is everywhere in Detroit. Hundreds of colorful murals now decorate the city, many of them highly polished works by a mix of some of the best-known street artists in the country and gifted local painters. Developments are moving so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. Two weeks ago organizers announced the creation of Murals in the Market, a nine-day festival in September in which some 45 national and local artists will create dozens of large-scale, commissioned pieces in Eastern market.
Last week, however, the world-famous street artist Shepard Fairey, who recently completed an 18-story mural at One Campus Martius at the bequest of real estate mogul Dan Gilbert and others, was arraigned on felony charges that while in town he also defaced public and private property without permission. He faces a maximum penalty of five years in jail and fines that could exceed $10,000 or more.
The rush of news and the controversy surrounding Fairey’s arrest have re-ignited a debate over the value of street art, its connection to unauthorized graffiti and vandalism and the increasing role that public art is playing in revitalizing and beautifying the city in myriad neighborhoods, from southwest Detroit to Eastern Market, downtown, the Grand River corridor and elsewhere.
What’s unfolding can be read as a clash of cultures: Those who see value in the complex history and tradition of street art, its connection to social protest and its outlaw roots — even as they disavow its excesses — versus those who don’t. On another level, Detroit is witnessing the tension that occurs when a former subculture becomes absorbed, sometimes co-opted, by the mainstream.
It’s great if it’s legal
City officials say they’re all in favor of street art — as long as it’s legal.
“There is a difference between street art and illegal tagging — graffiti,” said Alexis Wiley, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s chief of staff. “Street art is fantastic. There are places where it’s added to an area. But bottom line: If you don’t ask for property owners’ permission you’re committing a crime.”
Street artists and their advocates argue that the celebration of risk and its connection to status is so deeply embedded within the DNA of street art that clear-cut distinctions between art and crime remain more elusive than the plain text of a city ordinance.
“From the perspective of a graffiti writer, the debate about whether graffiti is art or crime is pointless because, ideally, it is both,” graffiti historian Eric Felisbret wrote last year in the New York Times.
Many street artists concede that the police have a job to do and that ugly and destructive name-tagging should be punished.
But they also say that not all graffiti is created equal. In this view, artistically rendered signatures in stylized calligraphy on an abandoned building — to say nothing of a strategically placed and deftly painted hoodlum pointing a gun — are markers of identity, vanity, subversion and commentary. They are not the cause of urban decay but reactions to it.
“Any street artist who is at a top level started somewhere by picking up a spray can, and probably worked illegally because they didn’t have other options,” said Freddy Diaz, a celebrated 22-year-old artist from southwest Detroit. Diaz has completed nearly 20 commissioned murals in his neighborhood and has begun to show in galleries and work overseas.
“I don’t deface property,” he said. “But when I was 16, I did illegal work, and I almost did jail time. That’s when I learned to make money with my art, and I had mentors who helped show me the right way to do things. … If you make graffiti a felony, that’s clipping the wings of a kid. There won’t be any opportunity to educate them.”
Like Fairey, many of today’s established street artists continue to do unauthorized work, partly as a way to reaffirm their street cred. But others have decided that as they’ve gotten older and matured, the risks are no longer worth it.
“For me, in the last 15 years, I’ve been trying to promote the positives of the genre,” said the 43-year-old Detroit artist known as Fel3000ft. “Being an older guy with kids, I haven’t worked illegally for some 20 years.”
Many in Detroit’s street art community say that Duggan’s aggressive response toward graffiti — which stretches back a dozen years to his days as Wayne County prosecutor — threatens to smother Detroit’s reputation as a haven for artistic creativity. They point to the stiff charges Fairey faces, a crackdown on local offenders and an episode last year in which dozens of building owners were mistakenly ticketed for blight violations because of murals they approved.
Detroit artist Kobie Solomon, best known for his authorized gargantuan mural of a mythical beast on the side of the Russell Industrial Center, which is visible from I-75, said that he wouldn’t be surprised if Fairey’s case caused some national and local artists who have been doing authorized work in Detroit to reconsider their allegiance to the city.
“The eyes of the international art world are on Detroit right now, and it’s a bigger and more delicate situation than people are aware of,” said Solomon. “How it’s all handled could determine whether we’re viewed as a progressive city or an archaic place.”
City officials say the penalties are part of trying to change the culture of a city anxious to leave behind its reputation for lawlessness. For decades graffiti artists had their run of the streets. Wiley resisted suggestions that art was under attack. She noted that of 30 people arrested for graffiti in the last year, fewer than 10 were Detroit residents.
Three Grosse Pointe teens were sentenced to 60 hours of community service for defacing two buildings on Michigan Avenue and Griswold Street last summer in downtown Detroit.
A few weeks later, residents applauded when Detroit Police Chief James Craig announced the arrests of five young men for spray-painting a couple of buildings on Detroit’s west side.
“If they believe there’s such a right to do street art, then they should start tagging their own homes,” Wiley said.
“If you wouldn’t do it on your own house, why is it OK to come to Detroit and do it on a building and believe that it’s some sort of social protest?”
Many residents near where vandalism occurs worry that graffiti can lead to neighborhood decline.
Gail Dorsey, a University District neighborhood block captain in northwest Detroit, said that she enjoys the murals she’s seen around town that have been carefully planned and well-executed, but she draws the line at unauthorized work, especially in or near residential communities.
“When I see the cans come out and it’s scribbles and bad language, I don’t see anything artistic about that,” she said.
“There are empty buildings on Livernois, and I don’t want to see people come out and put up stuff without permission, because there’s no way to count on people putting up something good.”
Vibrant cultural scene
Some arts advocates say the issue is bigger than the Duggan administration’s relationship with graffiti-related art. Eaton of the Red Bull gallery charged that the city isn’t doing nearly enough to nurture Detroit’s vibrant cultural scene. He noted that there hasn’t been a cultural affairs director or department at city hall for a decade.
“That would at least be a place to start, and it would improve communication if someone there had more knowledge and sensitivity about the arts,” said Eaton, who is also a partner at the Library Street Collective, the downtown gallery that helped bring Fairey to Detroit
Wiley said she wasn’t in a position to commit to the idea of creating a cultural affairs post, but she emphasized that officials were interested in a closer relationship with the arts community. “I’d love to start a conversation,” she said.
Detroit’s exploding street art scene is among the most visible signs of the way the arts are infusing energy into the city. Culture is improving quality of life, attracting suburbanites and tourists and providing the fodder for a regular stream of national media stories highlighting Detroit’s comeback.
The legions of artists and young creatives who have been pouring into the city, the renewed relevancy of institutions like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Detroit Institute of Arts, and homegrown masterpieces like Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project are all also part of the excitement.
Culture has become a magnet for investment with the foundation world, particularly the Troy-based Kresge Foundation and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami, pouring more than $50 million into the city’s cultural scene since 2006. (And that’s not counting the more than $366 million that foundations gave to the grand bargain to protect the DIA and shore up pensions during the city’s bankruptcy.)
Last week, a family of three from Montreal strolled through the Belt, the exuberant, art-filled alley, curated by the Library Street Collective, in the middle of the Z parking garage, which itself houses 24 murals, including those by leading national figures such as Revok, Hense and Maya Hayuk.
On their way to Chicago, the French-Canadian threesome stopped in Detroit for the day because they had heard about the city’s rebound and that art was leading the charge.
“We’re seeing all of this beautiful street art, and all of the life at Cadillac Square,” said Marie-Josee Dufour. “We can see the effort people are making, but the art was a surprise. We thought we’d spend all day at the museums, but instead we’re just walking around and looking. We’ll come back, and we’ll talk about Detroit as a place to go on vacation.”
Graffiti art’s history
The history of contemporary graffiti art begins in the late ’60s and early ’70s in rough neighborhoods in Philadelphia and New York. Kids began simple name-tagging, and soon subway cars were being covered with spray paint. By the end of the decade graffiti was assimilated into early hip-hop culture. Certain kinds of tagging also became identified with gang activity, though graffiti had already been used for decades in some circles to mark territory.
By the ’80s, a more mature kind of street art began to emerge, spreading to walls around American cities and around the world. Artists moved beyond text to more complex imagery. Keith Haring’s cartoon-like figures and social and political themes began to cross over into mainstream culture. Haring and the gifted Jean-Michel Basquiat transcended their graffiti roots to become art-world stars. And graffiti and street-art styles began to influence advertising, fashion and commercial graphic design.
In the last decade the mainstreaming of street art took a great leap forward with the increasing celebrity of two artists — the anonymous Brit known as Banksy, the subject of the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop” (and who bombed the abandoned Packard Plant in 2010 with two murals), and Fairey, who skyrocketed to fame in 2008 on the wings of his ubiquitous “Hope” poster of Barack Obama.
These days many street artists also show in galleries, where their works can sell for tens of thousands of dollars or more. A Banksy street mural, excavated from London, sold for $1.1 million at auction in 2013. Fairey is a one-man conglomerate, selling prints, books, skateboards and lines of clothing and accessories outfitted with his calling-card imagery like the Obey logo and Andre the Giant face.
“All things that are subcultures and successful eventually become part of the larger culture and end up having a dollar value put on them,” said Roger Gastman, co-author of “The History of American Graffiti” (Harper Design, $40) and a co-curator of “Art in the Streets,” a high-profile 2011 exhibition of street art at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
The proliferation of mural festivals, commissions, gallery shows and celebrity have made it possible for many street artists to expand their creative horizons and earn a living. But it has also led to commodification and evidence that the genre has lost its edge. Gastman said that street art hasn’t necessarily been sapped of all its energy and creativity but that it has been “diluted.”
“More people become interested, more people become fans and less people know the true history,” he said. “It also creates a lot of artists who don’t have the true respect of the streets.”
A street-art showplace
The Dequindre Cut, which runs below street level for a little more than a mile, parallel to St. Aubin Street, has become one of the most satisfying spots to see street art in Detroit.
The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, which manages the path, has commissioned a dozen exemplary Detroit artists to do murals on the concrete bridge supports and walls along the way. The varied works include Fel3000ft’s marriage of outer-space imagery and pro-Detroit text; the two-person Hygienic Dress League’s enigmatic figures (one wears a gasmask and holds a bird); and the meticulously rendered, ominous and purple bird-like creature painted by the artist called Malt.
The Conservancy has also left many more examples of illegal graffiti and street art undisturbed alongside the commissioned work.It’s a savvy move, allowing a sense of urban grit to remain part of the experience. Still, context matters. Nothing in the completed part of the Cut — amid the joggers, bicyclists, dog walkers and strollers — captures the raw expression and anxious jolt of coming across the mural of the gunman on the other side of the barricade.
Will the new Detroit allow such a provocative reminder of the city’s troubled history to remain? Marc Pasco, director of communications for the conservancy, said a decision about whether the work would ultimately be removed before the northern extension of the Cut opens would be made on whether the mural was deemed offensive for what he called a “family venue.”
It’s hard to imagine the mural surviving such a threshold, and maybe it shouldn’t even be an issue. Street art by definition is ephemeral. But justified or not, something of value will disappear when that mural gets whitewashed.
Contact Mark Stryker: 313-222-6459. firstname.lastname@example.org