What came to be known as the Detroit Beautification Project was essentially thought up over lunch. Local art scenester Matt Eaton (Red Bull House of Art, Library Street Collective) was hanging out with noted street artist Revok (happily exiled to Detroit after the LAPD chased him out of his former home for his street art shenanigans there), and the two were lamenting the lack of variety and “real competent” graffiti here.
“[We challenged] ourselves to find legal ways to get a bunch of really good talented world-class graffiti art up to, in a weird way, give people some context to judge what they think is beautiful right now, or what they think is ugly,” Eaton says over phone. Most of the graffiti in town was just tags, or the artists’ signatures, a “repetitive task that has nothing to do with anything but ego and destruction” and essentially just defaces property, he explains. With ample walls, Detroit street art had the potential to be so much more — something that could add value to the community.
So starting in 2012, a grass-roots effort began to get some of the biggest names in street art to come to Detroit and (literally) paint the town. They got Montana Cans to donate spray paint. Local print shop 1XRUN sold some fine art prints based off the art to help pay for lift rentals and other supplies. The group sought legal approval to paint the walls, a few of which were occupied and covered in bad graffiti, but most were unoccupied and in need of a colorful face-lift.
The very first mural in the project was “Welcome to Hamtramck,” a friendly-looking cartoon bear by Revok and German artist Flying Fortress (Joseph Campau and Denton, Hamtramck). Many of the murals would be collaborative efforts — some much more ambitious and grand than others. “Jukebox Cowboys” was a two-story effort by Austrian artist Nychos and Flying Fortress (Fisher Service Drive and Orleans, Detroit), and the rest of the building features an elaborate mural by L.A.-based Rime and Revok. One of the biggest murals, features an even bigger mash-up of artists — Revok, Nekst, Wayne, Ces, Dmote, Reyes, Steel, Pose, Dabs-Myla, and Zes are all featured here (Joseph Campau and Gaylord, Detroit).
“In the grand scheme of things, it was a minimal effort that had a huge effect,” Eaton says of the initial push. “The whole point was to get other people to take some sort of action and decide to do something themselves, to get off their ass and instead of criticizing, go out and show me how you would do it different.”
And that has certainly happened. It seems that Detroit is now bursting at the seams with world-class street art. That same year, graffiti artist Tommy Daguanno proposed to his love with a “Marry me Tizzie?” mural in Eastern Market (Division and Orleans, Hamtramck). Meanwhile, 1XRUN set up a “Welcome to Eastern Market” mural by Nychos and The Weird (Gratiot between Rivard and Russell, Detroit). Most recently, 1XRUN facilitated a three-story mural by L.A. artist Shark Toof in Eastern Market (Division and Riopelle, Detroit).
After the Detroit Beautification Project, Eaton and the Library Street Collective Gallery brought in artists from across the country and abroad to make the Z garage a little bit more than a place to just park your car (Library Street and Gratiot, Detroit). Each level of the 10-level garage features a radically different mural that spans the whole deck, such as the husband-and-wife duo of L.A.-via-Australia’s Dabs-Myla, who decorated the walls with their trademark cartoon characters, and the L.A.-based collective Cyrcle, who impressively re-created the feel of old etchings with spray paint.
Of his choice to invite high-profile artists from outside Detroit, Eaton says it brings attention to Detroit in a way that using native artists would not have. “These artists came and experienced Detroit mostly for the first time,” Eaton says. “Those people go back, and tell a different story about Detroit. They change that ruin-porn narrative.”
Two years later and all the Detroit Beautification Project’s original murals are still there, continuing to brighten up the urban landscape and not covered in graffiti like naysayers said they’d be. All of them, that is, with the exception of one. A mural by the artist Sever — a dig at graffiti culture going mainstream, depicting representations of various famous street artists carrying a casket (Joseph Campau and Goodson, Hamtramck) — immediately sparked controversy from Hamtramck residents who protested the sight of a coffin.
The painting was defaced and ultimately ordered by the city to be painted over in 2013 with a the much safer choice of an eagle, evocative of both the Polish flag and the United States seal, painted by local artist Kobie Solomon.
Eaton is still sore about the incident. “It’s akin to walking into a museum and seeing a painting you don’t like and pissing on it,” he says. “Sure, it’s a public space, but it’s not your building.” However, he admits this sort of thing goes with the territory in the world of street art. Oddly, another painting by Sever — a fat Captain America — failed to drum up the same controversy, even though Eaton believes it has as much or more bite to it (Grand River Avenue and Calumet Street, Detroit). “It’s a political message, funnily enough, directed to those same people who might not understand it, who just sit back and drink their slushie,” he says.
Eaton sees engaging, cerebral street art as a welcome alternative to the typical onslaught of advertisements people are bombarded with. “Who’s engaging youth walking to school — instead of walking by a bunch of billboards and posters telling them to cash checks and buy alcohol?” he asks. “Having those questions posed to kids as they walk home from school: ‘What is this? is this something I can do? Can I choose a career as an artist?’ These are important things that are not being asked of our youth today.”
Check out a slideshow of 30 photos of some of the best street art around town here.