Great walls of Detroit

Head up or down any of the wheel spokes of Detroit’s urban layout — Gratiot, East Jefferson, Grand River, Michigan Avenue — or across or down the interconnecting grid structure — East or West Eight Mile Road, Fenkell, Linwood, Tireman, Van Dyke and especially Livernois. On the walls of small businesses, you’ll see wonderful paintings that celebrate the services or products sold within. None of the signs are “professional-looking,” nor are the painters trying to be particularly artistic, but the signs of these wall troubadours will capture your attention and make you smile, tickle your fancy and arouse the roving libido or revolutionary poet in you.

There are artist signatures “GAV” and “Wilson” — there’s “Sulka,” “F Signs,” “Wall-2-Wall” and “Felle Art.” Sometimes there are anonymous paintings where pure poetry emerges, like in the unsigned work of Thomas De Mars Jr. and Cory Kinney. And then there’s the mysterious “Weems,” who uses the whole city for his canvas and about whom legends abound. We know those others who mark the city with their maverick graffiti on overpasses and bridges, and we’ve all seen the mysterious blue dot that punctuates the city’s walls like a period that says our sentence is over. But we don’t know these less obvious artists — maybe they don’t call themselves artists, but “sign painters” — who modestly paint small businesses all over the city that are struggling to make a living and build a community which is, thankfully, almost immune to the corporate virus.

Throughout this issue of Metro Times, you’ll find photographer Dirk Bakker’s voluptuous celebrations of these works. Bakker, who is director of visual resources at the Detroit Institute of Arts, has looked at this very particular kind of painting all over the world. These images don’t fit the museum and aren’t a part of the corporate formula of billboards to own our space and, consequently, us.

Bakker has studied the social spaces of Mayan ruins with their unique glyphs that are a blend of history and social narrative. He has driven thousands of miles in Mexico photographing small-business signs or “wall paintings.” It’s these “wall dreams” that somehow preserve individuals and families, and construct community. Now in the remote microeconomies of our own city, Bakker has ferreted out another kind of hybrid art form that gives us life.

On the walls of 3 in 1 Records on West Eight Mile, gangsta rapper Notorious B.I.G.’s huge hand reaches out of the sky (on this issue’s cover), as if to say, “I still got you covered.” He’s enshrined there alongside Tupac Shakur, both of whom, gunned down street-style, currently reside somewhere in the next world. 3 in 1 owns the turf and asserts its own cultural icons to the passing motorists. The store offers up the complete package of life — music, candy and beauty salon — for looking and feeling good. 3 in 1 Records, like the music it sells, is its own, in-your-face space, celebrating what it believes in or makes money at.

But Bakker really likes the smaller places that have a more subtly expressed humanity: “Hey, the gangster rappers are just one more expression of corporate bullshit. Notorious B.I.G. is only big because of corporate dollars. That air-brushed painting isn’t as satisfying as the hand-painted signs. The wall paintings that really do the trick are like Weems’ work (at Gray’s Pest Control, for example) or Wall-2-Wall over at Vibrations on Gratiot.”

Joe Gray, owner of Gray’s Pest Control, says the painter Weems lives around the neighborhood and just shows up from time to time: “He doesn’t drive. You pick him up and get his materials and bring him to the job. He’s the classic Bohemian artist. He’s a character. He walks all over the city with his cans of paint and has work everywhere. Ya know, you might have to stop for something to drink, but that’s part of the deal.”

Check out Weems’ outrageous characters on the side of Chief’s Party Store over on Fenkell. The Williams sisters, as in tennis, are there arm-in-arm celebrating their sisterhood, as the rest of the characters there celebrate black identity.

Richard Francis has a State Farm agency on Grand River near Redford: “One Friday night, I was leaving the office and these two guys, Vietnam vets they were, approached me and asked me for some money for a drink. I said, what can you do to earn it, and they said they were the best artists in the world. So I went into the office and found a photo of an old State Farm Agency in California, and I said I wanted it on the wall. They said no problem, so I gave them a little money for materials and drink and left. The next day, a Saturday morning, I came into work and they’d been there all night, I guess. They had no scaffold but were standing on cinder blocks and board and ladders. The whole thing was freehand-sketched in charcoal, preparing for the paint, and looked great, and I gave them some more money and they were done in a few days.”

Francis has had the painting freshened up over the years and it still has a wonderful charm. He’s very proud to talk about it. I asked if one of the artists was named Weems, but he never really knew their names.

All over the city, little communities exist with their own world going on and their own gorgeous struggles and complicated, real people. Some have wall paintings.

Go get pampered at Phalanges Nail Salon over on Linwood — meet Lynne and feel the beautiful community she has built there and check her delicious sign by Cory Kinney. Dig the eroding beauty of the sign at Yetta Boo’s Boobs and Buns Hand Car Wash over on Joy Road, or the magic of the rendering of roofers by Thomas De Mars Jr. over at 3 in 1 Maintenance on Van Dyke.

As you travel this difficult, conflicted city, you realize that it’s still punctuated with these amazing wall dreams of hope and desire. And what’s more amazing is that they celebrate social coherence and pride in personal work.

Check out the entire Metro Times Summer '03 Guide series

Cruising Gratiot
Smooth steering up and down that same old strip.

Extreme pest adventures
Taking on Freddy Roach, Roddy Rodent and the parasitic hordes.

Toning the Motor body
Rediscovering the warm-weather joys of working out.

Two wheels good
Pushing on down the road, biking as everyone’s business.

Summer jobs from hell
Somebody’s gotta do them, but why you and me?

T-ball for dummies
Sandlot meditations on infinite patience for your inner adult.

Hoops all in your face
At Peterson Playfield, the court is in session for pickup b-ball.

In the heat of the night
The coolest classic movies are a doldrums antidote.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]