All the world's a canvas

This underground art gallery has no welcome mat or street address. The entrance is a hole in a Cyclone fence that leads down a treacherous, trash-littered slope. Fight through shrubbery and fast-food containers; avoid jagged glass, water-filled tires and hulking scrap metal, leap over an open sewer system — and arrive in a strangely serene corner of Detroit.

Here, fantastically bizarre 6-foot-tall flora spring from the earth. Birds sing. And graffiti art flourishes, while cars in rush-hour fury race 50 feet above.

Known variously as the Dequindre Line, the St. Aubin rail spike or the Eastern Market yard, this mile-long stretch of abandoned railroad tracks is one of several ever-evolving canvases for Detroit’s graffiti-art community.

Running parallel to St. Aubin Street, this urban art gallery exhibits examples of genres that of course bear their own nomenclature — Old School (paintings in the pre-1984 style), Wild Style (a complicated series of intertwined letters) and wonderfully weird but unclassifiable spray paintings. Thousands of empty spray cans litter the ground. Undeterred by the $500 and 90-day legal ramifications, renegade “writers” have all but covered the 18 overpasses that span the stretch of sunken rail bed. In many cases the Krylon-, Color Rite- and Rustoleum-rendered “throw-ups” (a one- or two-colored, quickly executed painting), “burners” (a well-executed, eye-catching painting) and master “pieces (multicolored murals) have, in some mysterious fashion, appeared on overpasses that are far beyond the reach of any unmotivated individual. The artists won’t say how they pull it off.

And the Dequindre Line is just one of the studios graffiti artists have adopted. The interior of the abandoned Cadillac factory at Hastings and Piquette is also plastered with murals. Walls, ceilings, the rooftop water tower and anything else left behind are fair game for graffiti signatures. So are many walls within the hauntingly beautiful Michigan Central Station.

In fact, southwest Detroit is a “graf” hotbed, home to many of Detroit’s best artists. They’re not gangsters — gang graffiti is an entirely different animal — though the graf subculture does have a structure and mores all its own.

A King (a title given to the most-respected writers) among Detroit Kings, a man who goes by the moniker Fel, says, “We got about 50 to 60 kids comin’ from all over the place to participate in this thing. A lot of ’em come from southwest Detroit, but you got kids comin’ in from all parts of Detroit, including Downriver and all of the surrounding suburbs.”

Shades, a Brooklyn-born veteran of the Detroit scene, says, “I know guys who wear suits and ties all day only to rush home, grab their cans and markers, and go out bombin’ the city until it’s time to go to work the next day.”

The artists are proud of their eclectic community. Jime, a rising artist, explains, “There is no typical graffer. That’s the beauty of it. We’re all about breakin’ down racial and economic boundaries … If you got skills, it doesn’t matter where you come from.”

“I don’t know many graffers that are all that racially pure,” Shades adds, joyous rebellion in his voice. “If you don’t fit in, you get in where you fit in. We’re the lost tribe — we’re all mixed up.”

Kevin Hanson, co-owner of Detroit’s Johanson Charles Gallery, which has an abiding interest in the graffiti scene, says one of the city’s best graf artists is a Detroit police officer.

And the City of Detroit has come to recognize that not everything sprayed on walls hereabouts deserves to be whitewashed — the city is quietly encouraging talented writers to take their craft into approved settings.

Most writers are 18- to 35-year-old men; there are few women. Many have a childlike intensity and excitability about them. They look you in the eye, speak about their art with a desperate sincerity and, most importantly, are entertaining. Every fanciful train of thought that rolls across their minds for one exuberant moment becomes a passion.

Shades, for instance, talks in hip-hop scat: “Ohh man! Did you ever watch Bullwinkle? Ahhh, I just love that crazy cat. You know you really gotta dig this piece that Doc blew out for the DEMF … I really like sunrises. The guy makes those has a craazzzy palette. You gotta see this mad crazy deep purple that I’ve been working with. You know what? I’m not even hip no more.”

A vocabulary born of street sagacity and the elevated consciousness of artists rolls off tongues. Conversation is freckled with words and phrases such as “dig,” “cat,” “supatight,” “play on” and “get in where you fit in, playboy.”

And graf artists are refreshingly unpretentious. Artistes have no place within the circle.

Street profiles

Like other artistic communities, Detroit graffers are unabashed promoters and protectors of their peers. They know the respect of their fellows is their only reward. It’s common to see phrases such as “Respect all writers” or “Peace to all those who paint” scribbled next to works.

Writers go out of their way to represent all those needing recognition. As a preamble to interviews, several insist on reciting a long list of graf crews and artists that deserve respect. Fel insists that Fohr, Wish, Home, Kosik, Army and Fosik be mentioned. Shades says, “Oh yeah, Fel, man, he’s supatight — and Kosik, oh yea, I really dig that guy — oh and don’t forget Scot Snot. He has just gotta be mentioned.”

A lot of this spirit emanates from the formation of formal artistic “crews.” Writers hasten to stress that the crews are not violent gangs. Fel says, “I don’t know one single Detroit graf artist that is in a gang. Gang graffiti is simple, uninvolved stick letters [to mark turf], but a graffiti artist might spend hours or days on one piece.”

Graffiti crews are, according to Jime, “Just like car clubs or any other group of friends that enjoy spending time together because of common interests.”

Some of the most respected crews in Detroit include the Social Rejects, DFW, the Advanced Technology Crew, Modern Hieroglyphics and X-Men.

Fel belongs to a “monster crew,” the Cold Fusion Crew (CFC), which he describes as a kind of all-star team drawn from other crews. Fel says the crew’s title was chosen because, if science could master it, cold fusion would be the cleanest (in graffiti terms, best) burning (to create or paint eye-catching graffiti art) energy.

Where’s the beef?

The Detroit graf community has an established hierarchy, a set of rules and a virtual meeting place. At the pinnacle of the pyramid sit the Kings, the most respected artists who have been involved for years. In the middle lie those who’ve been accepted into the game and are developing their talents. At the bottom sit the “Toys,” those relatively new to the game who have yet to get a stamp of approval. A Toy might gain status by starting a “beef” (artistic duel) with a higher-ranking artist.

“You never know what Toy is going to be tomorrow’s King,” Fel says.

When a “battle” is initiated, the artists deface and paint over the foe’s graffiti. The community monitors the situation, and once the better painter is revealed, the vanquished is essentially demoted.

The most famous Detroit beef pitted Sev against Justo. Justo was one of the original Kings of Detroit and, according to Fel, “had the best E-way [expressway] piece ever.” Over the course of several years, no matter how “blown out” (amazing) a Justo piece was, Sev painted over it with a simple, single-color tag. Artistic differences were eventually settled, but the feud became a thing of legend.

The community’s established meeting place is at, a Web site dedicated to the Detroit graffiti scene. Its message board has become an almost democratic forum in which community members try to politely discuss the latest developments. Currently, the most intensely debated subject is the beef between Ansiq, an aged vet of the scene, and several young artists recently accepted into the community. Other topics of discussion range from spray-can techniques to the best movie of all time.

But it isn’t easy to enter this community. Aside from having the correct skills, one must grasp all its inner workings and customs. Why go to all this trouble to join an illegal and outcast sect whose members for the most part go unnoticed by outsiders? Why join a society that demands that its members stay underground, paying for all of their own expensive materials with little opportunity to recoup the costs?

Fel puts it simply: “It’s better than premarital sex.”

An unidentified St. Aubin rail spike artist “wrote” it another way: “Knowing that one day we shall perish from this earth we struggle forth in effort to know thyself.”

Shades says, “It’s an amazing adrenaline rush.”

Large murals are often used as memorials for departed friends and family or the passing of some tragic event. Fel dedicated a truly inspired piece at St. Anne and West Vernor to the memory of his wife’s cousin, who committed suicide in 2000.

Shades was in the process of painting the detroit contemporary gallery’s semitruck trailer when he first heard of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Shades says, “Man, that just blew my mind. I couldn’t get it out of my head the whole time I was painting that piece.”

A political activist and graf artist known as Logic plans to paint large aerosoled copies of the United States Bill of Rights in some of the most poverty-stricken areas of Detroit.

Tyree Guyton, the Detroit artist famous for creating the Heidelberg Project, gets the respect of many graf artists.

“There is a mutual admiration between us,” Guyton says. “I have met several of the individuals responsible for the graffiti and our work is part of the same mission.

“It’s crazy and it is sad. I see all these political campaign signs all over every building, but when someone creates something artistic, it’s considered a crime.”

Graf roots

In its infancy the Detroit scene was “real straightforward,” says Johanson Charles Gallery’s Hanson. Most artists relied on simple white and/or black bubble-letter tags. But in 1992, J-Roo and J-Star, two of New York City’s legendary innovators, took up residence in Detroit and the scene started to take off. The pair brought vibrant, eye-catching letters to a drab scene. Under their tutelage, Detroit’s graf artists began to blossom. The two New Yorkers only stayed for seven months, but Hanson says their presence will always be felt within the graf community.

Fel describes Detroit today as “a true melting pot of East to West Coast styles — that’s the whole beauty of our Midwestern flow.”

Fel’s work is diverse, ranging from simple throw-ups to almost unreadable, interwoven letters that look as though they were crafted of crumbling volcanic rock. Shades relies on cleanly defined, cartoon-inspired Old School letters and characters. Ansiq paints strange blocks that perch precariously atop each other to eventually form his name.

Fohr and Army rely less on stylistic complexities and more on sheer volume. They’re what graffers call “all city” writers — they’ve worked tirelessly painting their names in as many places as possible all over the city.

The artist Fosik, meanwhile, is the Stephen King of graffers. His specialty is incredibly bizarre, demonic children who’ve had, with a surgical precision, pieces of their abdomens removed to expose a horrific emptiness. The words “Rot gut” accompany every one of his works.

Like any art form, graffiti art is full of complex techniques, tools and nuances that elevate it from the world of bathroom scribbling to a serious art form. For instance, a wide range of specialized aerosol can tips allows for the creation of different types of lines and effects. Hanson says cleanliness and sharpness of lines separate a true graf genius from an amateur. An artist who has an abundance of overspray or drips, or relies on stencils, may be considered hackneyed.

Perhaps the most interesting technical aspect is the way in which the artists turn the act of painting into a piece of performance art that is separate from, yet inherently connected to, the finished product. The creation of these paintings is a mad dance that involves the shaking of several different cans all at once, large swoops of the arms and slinky bowing movements. Another important aspect is the night. Even while creating legal pieces, many artists insist on working under cover of darkness.

This dance is strangely reminiscent of the movements of PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect) kids. Is it a coincidence, or are these two art forms inherently connected? It’s clear that the cultures have embraced each other with open arms. Shades was commissioned to “bomb” walls at the 2001 DEMF. He brought along a friend and New York pioneer named Doc, who came to Detroit, techno’s hometown, and put the abstract sound into paint on a series of four 10-foot-tall panels on which dancing humanlike letter figures combined to read “Detroit.”

Tags of success

As the traditional artistic community continues to recognize these artists as legitimate, they’ve been receiving more and more gallery attention. Detroit’s Johanson Charles Gallery (1345 Division in Eastern Market, 313-567-8638) has been at the forefront of promoting graffiti artists.

“In the beginning, people were like, ‘Hey, Kevin, what do you want to sell this graffiti stuff for?’” recalls Hanson. But the paintings have been selling.

Shades, the only Detroit graf artist who supports himself with his art, says, “I can’t keep nuthin’ on my walls. As soon as I make ’em, my paintings fly outta’ here.”

Fel has enjoyed similar success on the walls of the Johanson Charles gallery. He’ll open a show Nov. 1 at La Jive in Wyandotte. His paintings go for $300 to $500.

Mary Harrison of CPOP Gallery (4160 Woodward Ave., Detroit, 313-833-9901), another space that has shown graffiti artists, says, “These lowbrow graffiti artists have so much to say about the world and what is going on right now. Other highbrow artists are not nearly as in touch with the state of the world.” (Shades has a show opening at CPOP on Nov. 9.)

Phaedra Robinson, director of detroit contemporary (5141 Rosa Parks Blvd., Detroit, 313-898-4ART), another gallery that has promoted the scene, says, “The general enjoyment of graffiti art is universal. Graffiti is so narrative that it can really speak to people. People like it because it comes from the city.”

Graffiti artists have recently won some friends in government. Al Fields, the city’s deputy chief operating officer, who directs graffiti removal, recently organized Detroit Street Art, an informal task force aimed at the preservation and promotion of quality works. Among those on the panel are Shades, Detroit artist Vito Valdez and Hanson.

“Being a Detroiter, I can realize that this stuff is art,” Fields says. “We want to learn the good graffiti from the bad so that we don’t take down the stuff that should be preserved.”

Fields stresses that this does not mean the city will be commissioning artists or showing leniency toward those who vandalize private property. But the city did provide Shades with paint to create an authorized mural on an abandoned wall in Eastern Market.

The mere fact that the city is showing any tolerance for street art is remarkable, considering that both Shades and Fel say Detroit police who’ve caught them in the act of painting have threatened their lives.

Though Detroit street art is gaining legitimacy, the heart of the community still lies in abandoned and mostly forgotten areas of the city. But as each Toy graduates to King status, the scene expands and the talent well deepens.

With seriousness in his usually lackadaisical voice, Shades states, “Detroit is gonna blow up.” He means it in a good way.

For now, however, the community remains mostly underground and self-contained, while the cars race unknowingly overhead.

E-mail Adam Stanfel at [email protected]
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