An army of skeletons clad in business suits stares down at the parking lot of the 4731 Gallery with piercing red eyes — a mural, among many that surround the gallery as part of a project called the Grand River Creative Corridor. Curated by the gallery's managing director Derek Weaver, the project fights blight and vandalism along the avenue by transforming drab walls into vibrant works of street art. Along with work done by groups like the Detroit Beautification Project and 1XRUN, it's part of a larger movement in town that has helped rejuvenate Detroit's reputation as an art city by commissioning murals from some of the world's biggest names in street art.
The only thing is, Weaver didn't order this particular mural. The skeletons were painted by Brian Glass, a Detroit artist also known as Sintex. "He's mocking me," says Weaver, indicating the "C. Vulture" badge one of the skeletons wears. "He's calling me a 'culture vulture.'"
A former tenant of 4731 and former GRCC artist, Sintex has become one of the most vocal critics of projects like Weaver's. He accuses the projects of watering down street culture and of celebrating out-of-town street artists while Detroit's are considered vandals.
"I understand where he's coming from," Weaver says. "I understand the idea of out-of-town artists coming in, and the idea of gentrification, and what's happening in the city. I think that Sintex, unfortunately, isn't very good at handling conflict. And I think that that's why things happened the way that they happened."
Last summer, Weaver and Sintex parted ways as Weaver increasingly regarded Sintex as a liability. In 2013, Sintex was arrested and jailed for allegedly pulling a gun on artists who confronted him about painting over one of their murals in Pontiac, though no charges were filed. But things came to a head last summer when Weaver brought in a Baltimore artist known as Gaia to paint over one of Sintex's murals — part of the rotating nature of the project that Weaver says all GRCC artists understood.
The mural Gaia painted was a tribute to Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man who was beaten to death by two white men in Highland Park in the 1980s. Not long after the mural was completed, though, Weaver says Sintex called him early one morning to tell him it had been vandalized. Weaver says Sintex's timing was suspicious — it was a hot summer day, and the paint was still wet when Weaver arrived. But before Weaver could work out plans with Gaia to arrange for the repair of the mural, Sintex went rogue, securing permission from the building's owner to completely buff out the mural and replace it with his own.
That was when Weaver and the rest of the GRCC collective decided to oust Sintex, and the following months saw a "graffiti war" break out between Sintex and out-of-town artists like Revok and the MSK crew, with both factions painting over each other's murals.
Weaver says it's the first time he's experienced vandalism since the project launched in 2012. "This isn't like the locals versus the out-of-towners," he says. "This is like Sintex versus the out-of-towners. All the other local people are not doing this stuff."
Sintex says he originally welcomed the mural initiatives and enjoyed collaborating with some of the out-of-town crews. But he says he began to detect a preference for the out-of-town artists over local ones, a conviction that he says he's not alone in feeling — he's just the only one in the local scene going public. "Everybody was saying it to themselves," he says. "It was like, 'You ready for war?' They all got their battle shields and everybody running on the field, but I'm the only one out there."
Sintex shows us a couple of murals he did not far from his home, such as a portrait of the late rapper Proof located inside the Original Hip-Hop Shop on Seven Mile Road. One of his latest depicts portraits of notable Rastafarians on a now-shuttered Jamaican restaurant. He describes himself as a "well-rounded artist" who has studied at New York's Pratt Institute as well as Detroit's College for Creative Studies, whose other interests include illustration, animation, and even toy design (a recently released licensed J Dilla figurine sold out in a presale).
All throughout the "graffiti war," Sintex appeared to choose increasingly sacred subject matter as a sort of armor to protect his murals from vandalism. His repainted Chin mural still included Chin, but he added other local victims of brutality like Aiyana Jones and Malice Green, along with figures like Crazy Horse (Sintex says he is of mixed African and Native American descent) under the banner "Our Land Til Death." He painted a mural of the late rapper Tupac over a piece by Los Angeles-based artist Revok, but when that got painted over, he replaced it with an image of Rosa Parks' mugshot, her prison numbers replaced with Sintex's name.
"I feel like certain pieces are so powerful that they know they can't go over it. I played chess," he says. "You got to play chess and strategize and move correctly. That's how I figure I have to paint my pieces and do artwork and do the most powerful pieces I can possibly paint, especially in the time and day we live in." On Instagram, Sintex warned that a "race war" would break if someone dared to paint over the Parks mural.
It's in stark contrast to the imagery of many of the out-of-town crews, which seem to favor innocuous subject matter like brightly colored cartoons. Sintex says his problem with the out-of-town art is its failure to communicate anything with the local community. "It's a very pop, watered-down culture," he says. "It's almost like anybody can do it. And everybody is doing it. They take different forms of the culture and water it down where you look at it and it's just whack."
Sintex sees it as no better than graffiti vandals tagging their names on buildings as part of gang turf wars. "Out of the MSK murals, I've seen some big booty chicks, some teddy bears, and some rabbits farting," he says, adding that he's echoing sentiments he's heard from other people he's spoken to on the streets. "They're like, 'I seen these dudes, they painted a chick with her booty out, and my daughter gotta walk by this!' It's disrespectful to the community.
"I'm trying to set a standard of what this culture should be about, what my city should be about and trying to preserve that."
And while Gaia's Chin mural was very much a work of political art, Sintex says it missed the mark entirely by not connecting with its immediate community. "Vincent Chin was from Highland Park," he says. "If (Gaia) were to connect with me, I could have connected him to the mayor of Highland Park and he could have got a huge wall there. It would have made entirely more sense."
In the middle of all this, the Duggan administration briefly cracked down on graffiti in October 2014. City officials slapped building owners with fines, including at least $8,000 to Weaver and the GRCC, before admitting that they had a hard time distinguishing between murals and vandalism and quickly lifting the fines.
But the story is far from over. Last week, city officials started ongoing meetings to address two proposed ordinances that would give the city more power in combating graffiti and to fine building owners for not removing graffiti from their properties. Both Weaver and Sintex say they have recently been consulted by the city in initial talks to move the ordinances forward. The one thing the two men can agree on is that the city needs to tread carefully, worrying that the worst-case scenario would lead to fees for mural permits. (Calls to the city were not returned by press time.)
"I do know that the graffiti in the city is out of control. There's no question about that," Weaver says. "The tagging, the vandalism, it's crazy. That should be regulated."
Weaver says the city should be careful not to over-regulate. "Artists and creative entrepreneurs, they thrive when the barriers are low," he says. "Once you start introducing red tape, that creativity and originality disappears. And I think that one thing that the city of Detroit has going for it is a lot of young people — young professionals, artists, and entrepreneurs — are being attracted like a magnet to this city. And I'd really hate to see that limited."
But Sintex sees the city crackdown as a reaction to a move initiated by the out-of-town muralists in the first place. "People want to treat it like a free-for-all," he says of the out-of-towners' attitudes. "That was set up when these dudes were brought here, to force that upon the city."
Sintex says he thinks the resulting crackdown could make it hard for Detroit artists to keep doing art, while the out-of-town artists face no consequences. "It's like, y'all not from here," he says. "You all came here and just marked up our whole city. You really didn't get with no artists — 'Here's the money, we're going to take pictures, and make a beautification project out of it.' And the city fell for it.
"That's the chess move," he adds. "Who's going to have the money for these things? Pay attention to that."