Takin' it to the streets

treet art wars rock Hamtramck!

If you would like to read the longer version of this article that was featured in the Blog last Friday please go here

It all started with an innovative plan to bring more art to metro Detroit. A joint project of the Seventh Letter street art crew, with help from 1XRun (a division of Royal Oak's 323East gallery), Contra Projects (headed up by Tom Thewes, the guy who directed CPOP Gallery in Detroit for 10 years) and spray paint company Montana Cans, it's informally called the Detroit Beautification Project. For the last few weeks, it has been a resounding success, with street artists coming in from across the world to decorate blank or defaced walls.

The project saw more than a dozen contemporary murals — in a high-toned graffiti style known as street art — go up in and around Detroit, from Eastern Market to Joseph Campau at McNichols, from Hamtramck's Roosevelt Field to Phil Cooley's Ponyride space in Corktown. The artists who painted them came from all over the world. 

Traditionally, metro Detroit hasn't been a hotspot for this art form. But the area's preponderance of blank walls and concrete make the city a street artist's dream. In fact, a Seventh Letter 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. He now works out of a space in Eastern Market, and has been making friends all over town, and was recently quoted in L.A. Weekly as saying, "This place is fucking awesome."

The arrival of Revok, and all the national attention given internationally acclaimed street artist Banksy's work around town last year, all mean rising enthusiasm for street art in our fair city.

The murals in Hamtramck were done with the cooperation of individual building owners and the city's department of community development, with Contra Project's Thewes taking a lead role. Many of the works there are what Thewes calls effective "gateway pieces," murals placed along roads into the downtown area. For instance, one piece — by the artists "Reyes" — sprawls all over the western wall of 2238 Holbrook, greeting motorists arriving from I-75. Thewes says that street art can spark interest, raise property values, even serve as a focal point for attracting businesses. 

Another gateway piece at Joseph Campau and Goodson is a very funny and provocative two-story piece by the street artist Sever. Called "The Death of Street Art," it portrays cartoonish pallbearers  — which street art cognoscenti will recognize as well-known street artists — carrying a casket labeled "Street Art." Perhaps a bit of caustic commentary, given the high-profile sponsorship and above-board, city-approved nature of the work, it's an important piece of work that street artists everywhere will be interested in.

Oh, and there was one more unplanned artwork, a piece by TrustoCorp affixed over an old Snethcamp auto dealership sign affixed to a dentist shop's wall. It read, "Everything will get better," and featured a cartoon devil bearing the TrustoCorp logo. A band of pranksters, TrustoCorp usually affixes fake but funny signs to public poles, so a billboard-sized artwork was extremely unusual, an unexpected boon to the project.


Showdown at City Hall

It seems that even before the paint was dry, some of Hamtramck's less artistically inclined residents were crying foul. By Tuesday, May 8, it became known that a petition calling for the removal of "The Death of Street Art" was being circulated. That same day, a video went up on the Inside the Rock Poster Frame Blog showing a local resident, who claimed to work cleaning up the lot at Joseph Campau and Casmere, saying he was going to whitewash the TrustoCorp billboard. He makes insulting remarks at the camera operators, and a woman down the street appears to threaten them with a stick.

After trying to peel the work off the billboard, the man began whitewashing the work, at least until he ran out of paint. The art, defaced with whitewash, was gone the next day, with a brand new sign for Al Deeby Dodge in its place.

Within hours, Hamtramck residents and business owners who supported the project got to work circulating a petition in favor of preserving "The Death of Street Art," dropping in at Maria's Comida to sign the document and show their support.

And so the two forces, one allied with the murals, one opposed, dashed off to a Hamtramck City Council meeting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday. An overflow crowd spilled out into the hallway, and the room was at capacity when all rose for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Hamtramck's City Council wasn't entirely approving at first. Councilmembers, even those who appreciated the work, objected to not being informed first, the murals being painted on public property and the possible loss of value for those buildings.

Most of these complaints were addressed in a presentation from Jason Friedmann, Hamtramck's director of community and economic development. He explained that the city's master plan included public art and street art as ways to deal with illegal graffiti. The idea is that gangs and illegal graffiti artists respect the leaders of the street art world, and by supporting legitimate graffiti projects the city would discourage the illegal graffiti. And Friedmann pointed to the "Welcome to Hamtramck" mural, already up for a few weeks and free of illegal tags, as evidence that the strategy works.

Friedmann noted that the petition in favor of removing Sever's art had 47 signatures, and that three of those signers had addresses outside Hamtramck. He also noted that the petition against removing Sever's art had more than 100 signatures.

It was also heartening to hear Friedmann say, when asked why sketches were not available for review by the council or the community, that he wasn't sure that "art by committee" is art, or will even ever get done. Such artists as Revok, Sever and Askew deserve to be able to determine their own work, and had already agreed not to do anything intentionally offensive.

Comments from the public were, for the most part, favorable, and those commenters were polite, articulate and nonconfrontational. One speaker, who remained neutral on the street art issue, just said Hamtramck needed more controversial art, because she'd never seen a meeting so full before.

Perhaps the best comment of all came from Hamtramck resident Hillary Cherry, about the art negatively affecting the value of the buildings. She pointed out that one local art gallery had gone so far as to remove, intact, a Banksy from the Packard Plant last year, and that it was possible that Sever's art might be worth more than the building it adorned!


A happy ending

It seemed that the forces of creativity had won over the objections of the philistines. And, obviously, if there's a next phase of this project, it won't have the same surprise factor, and things should go more smoothly for the artists, the council and the residents of Hamtramck.

Thewes is still thrilled about the project, despite the trouble with a few ungracious parties. "Art is good for cities," he says. "It's hard to change a school system, for instance. It's hard to attract a huge corporation to bring in more jobs. But it's not so hard to get cool artists to do cool artwork that gets people's attention."

One other thing bothered us: What happened to the unapproved TrustoCorp billboard that the locals defaced? The good news was that TrustoCorp asked Thewes to remove it and secure it somewhere safe from the whitewash rollers of Casmere Street. "Yeah," Thewes says, "they asked us if we could save it so it wouldn't be wrecked."

Thinking of Hillary Cherry's comment, we asked how much would it fetch in a gallery setting if you were to restore and sell the billboard. 

Thewes postulated a bit before saying, "I'd say between $10,000 and $20,000."

Oh, really? Who are the vandals now?


Michael Jackman is associate editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.