West Bloomfield gallery takes a look at four mysterious Detroit artists 

Street art grows up

A painting of “Nigel” the rabbit by Fel3000ft.

A painting of “Nigel” the rabbit by Fel3000ft.

According to his website, the artist known as Fel3000ft started writing graffiti in 1982 — placing him as one of Detroit's longest-working street artists. As the art form went from the underground into the mainstream, so did Fel. Today, he's built a career as a celebrated muralist, and was one of several artists tapped by craft brewpub HopCat to add local flair to its Detroit location when it opened last year. And now, he's one of four artists to take their work into a fine art gallery setting at West Bloomfield's Janice Charach Gallery.

But asked if there's any tension in a street artist like him bringing his work into a posh suburban gallery, Fel shrugs it off. "Not really. We're translating a lot of the stuff that we would do from the street onto canvas," he says by phone. "In a way, since the '70s urban art has been struggling to find its way into the gallery scene and be seen as a reputable form of art. It's been trying to prove its validity ever since its birth, so it's kind of a natural progression of things."

For the show, Fel says followers can expect something a bit different from his Detroit murals. A recurring image in the show is "Nigel," a cartoon rabbit he says he's been drawing since he was a kid. He says he has never shown as many Nigel paintings in one gallery show as he has now.

Fel describes Nigel as a kind of a mischievous alter ego, since he says he has abandoned his graffiti days long ago. For him, it's about growing up. "I got two kids. I got a wife," he says. "My body physically is unable to do the things that I did when I was 16."

Fel describes Nigel as an expression of rebellion. "As far as I'm concerned, for a guy who comes from a graffiti background, I'm kind of a walking contradiction," he says. "I try to do the right thing, but I would say that Nigel's persona is that of mischievousness. He doesn't really care what he does."

Fel is joined by three similarly monikered artists — Malt (who also lent a mural to HopCat), Tead, and DEC023. When asked about his moniker, Malt says it has less to do with anonymity and more about maintaining their brands. "I don't go by my real name because that's what I've always gone by: Malt," he says by phone. "It just makes more sense to me."

But just because the artists are growing up doesn't mean they aren't sometimes surprised by where they've landed. "I talk about this with Malt a lot," says Fel. "We look at each other and laugh a little bit at the idea that at one point we never thought our careers would be going in this direction, ever."

When asked to join the show, Malt says it was impossible to turn down an offer from such a large space. "That sold me right there," he says. "It's two levels, and it's big enough for all four of us, and big enough for us each to show a substantial amount of work."

And for Fel, the Janice Charach show is all about reaching new audiences — which is right in line with street art's philosophy of bringing art to the people. "It's nice to be able to take a lot of that [street] influence, put it to canvas and take it to different places. People may or may not go to Detroit, so it gives other people the opportunity to see it."

Awesome Weirdos is now on view at the Janice Charach Gallery at the Jewish Community Center; 6600 W. Maple, West Bloomfield; 248-432-5579; charachgallery.org; free admission. The show runs through Sept. 24.

More by Lee DeVito

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