Normally, we object to any statement that declares Detroit to be a "blank canvas" ready to have new designs imposed on it. Generally, those who make such statements are prone to ignore the very real people, the centuries of heritage, the wealth of architecture that exist here in abundance.
But when it comes to muralists wanting to decorate our city, well, we must admit, we have a lot of blank, unadorned walls ready to be beautified. In that sense, yes, Detroit has a lot of blank canvas for muralists to go to work on.
And, whatever you call it, murals, "street art" or plain ol' graffiti, we are drawing people from all over.
Take a recent piece in LA Weekly. The street artist known as Revok, who has all but been chased out of Los Angeles for his work there, has found a receptive greeting in Detroit. The artist, who has reportedly moved into a space in Eastern Market, has been making friends all over town, delighted to have a famous artist adorn our buildings.
As quoted in the piece, Revok sounds pumped about Detroit: "I couldn't afford to make the kind of work I wanted to make in L.A., and I needed to go somewhere cheap where I could get away from being haunted by the police force.
Detroit is wide open. There's tons of space.
So I flew out here in February — it was freezing. I got off the plane and started driving around, sliding all over the ice in the streets and fell in love with it instantly. This place is fucking awesome."
That enthusiasm shows through in the variety and quantity of work he has done. In fact, this Sunday, we just missed a piece Revok allegedly did on the north wall of Phil Cooley's new Corktown space, Ponyride.
And when artists like Revok talk, other artists listen. In fact, his decision to vote with his feet and move here almost guarantees a fresh wave of artists moving in.
And this sort of work gets strong reactions. Take the beautification project spearheaded in Hamtramck, which invited and sanctioned artists from all over to treat walls across town as a canvas for beautification. We've seen a mural sprout up on Holbrook, just east of Lumpkin, over a wall that had been whitewashed a year ago. The black-and-white abstract work provides an interesting bit of visual energy just down the street from the iconic Kowalski Sausage sign. Another mural along a half-wall south of the railroad viaduct on Joseph Campau simply welcomes people to Hamtramck. That's hard to object to.
Or is it? One piece, about the death of street art, featured a coffin, which some locals said was morbid.
Another one of the pieces, done by TrustoCorp, had at least a few Hamtramck residents in a tizzy. The sign simply said "Things Will Get Better," and featured a smiling cartoon devil.
Not long after the work was completed, this video was shot (by the good people at the Inside the Rock Poster Frame Blog) of a few people (we weren't quite clear if they were taking it upon themselves to remove the mural or were working on a property owner's behalf) getting ready to whitewash it, remove it or otherwise deface it. The would-be whitewasher even insults the cameraperson in this encounter, and another local yokel brandishes a stick, perhaps as a threat.
No doubt, tonight's meeting at Hamtramck City Council (7 p.m. Tuesday, May 7) will be closely watched. One observer noted that it will "go super-viral in street art circles." And we hope that saner voices prevail that don't object to art just because it's provocative or difficult to understand. Like any city, Hamtramck has its prigs and philistines. And they could pose an obstacle to the cultural forces trying to lay out a welcome mat to international artists who'd like to work here.
To those who object, we'd say, isn't public art also intended to start a dialogue? Even if it makes us a little uncomfortable, it seems downright anti-intellectual to condemn art because it raises ideas we'd rather not think about or discuss openly. Isn't that the job of art?
And if not, whose is it?