Detroit police once considered artist Sheefy McFly a criminal. Now he’s making his mark on the city in a big way. 

click to enlarge Sheefy McFly completed the Monroe Street Midway in a week. - SE7ENFIFTEEN
  • Se7enFifteen
  • Sheefy McFly completed the Monroe Street Midway in a week.

These days, Detroit is looking like it belongs to Sheefy McFly.

On a recent weekday, the artist, whose real name is Tashif Turner, was putting the finishing touches on his largest project to date, in the heart of downtown, transforming an empty lot into a colorful wonderland.

The project sits on the corner of Monroe and Farmer streets, the site of Bedrock Detroit's stalled $830 million mixed-use Monroe Blocks development. While Bedrock, Detroit's biggest real-estate developer, has blamed the delay on it taking on too many projects at once, it activated the space for public use earlier this year by erecting a 60-foot-tall digital projection screen to create a pandemic-friendly drive-in movie theater in a partnership with Emagine Theatres. But with the weather getting warmer, Bedrock decided to pivot to a new project, "Monroe Street Midway," a park that features a roller rink run by Detroit's Rollercade, as well as a few basketball courts. When we visit, crews are installing vinyl panels printed with McFly's artwork to place over the screen, while McFly has painted a colorful pattern featuring stripes, zig-zags, and polka dots on the floor of the outdoor rink. Meanwhile, Phillip Simpson, another visual artist McFly has collaborated with before, paints his signature smiley faces on the floor of the basketball courts nearby.

"It was definitely different for me than doing a mural on a wall with spray paint," McFly, 31, tells Metro Times as he walks us through the space, which opened to the public on Friday. "We had to look at, like, tennis court paint, and think about the grit and texture for the roller wheels. It was totally out the box, and a challenge. And I honestly really liked the challenge."

McFly says he was tapped by the Library Street Collective gallery on behalf of Bedrock Detroit to design the rink and screen only weeks ago. "Everything just happened so fast, and we had to keep it really secret," he says. Unlike his corporate benefactor, McFly says he could tell taking on the project would be more than he could chew, so he called in for a little help from his friends. "It was really community-oriented," he says. "I had to think outside of myself. I could listen to my ego, like, 'I need to do it myself, I don't want nobody touching it, I don't want nobody knowing my style,' but I would've killed myself trying to do it in this sun. I really had to think of people that I can trust and reach out to."

There were other considerations, too. The painting is the largest McFly's ever done, based on a sketch he created on the digital program Procreate. "It was crazy, 'cause I'm looking at my phone and I got to gallop to do a whole line," he says. "So it was exercise, as well, and then all of last week it was just burning up, like 90-degree weather. It was still a process, but it was fun. It was like, you know, art problem-solving. So I feel like if I'm able to execute something like this, I can go even further."

In recent years, McFly, a visual artist and musician, has made a name for himself with his colorful murals around town, which occasionally reference the works of artists like Keith Haring and Pablo Picasso, but with his own Detroit twist. As part of 2018's Murals in the Market festival, near Detroit's long-standing Louisiana Creole Gumbo restaurant, he painted Haring-esque figures jit dancing and twerking next to a man wearing Buffs with a cartoon word balloon saying "Detroit never left." In 2019, around a viaduct on Seven Mile and John R Road, he painted more Haring-esque dancing figures, along with the bold words "TECHNO IS BLACK MUSIC" and an anthropomorphic coney dog (again, wearing Buffs) saying Detroit's greeting, "What up doe."

"That's probably the most infamous mural that I've done," McFly says.

McFly was hired to paint that mural by Detroit's City Walls program, an initiative to try to deter graffiti by creating public artworks. But while he was painting it, police pulled up, believing him to be a vandal himself. When an officer attempted to handcuff him, McFly pulled away to try to retrieve his city-issued permit out of his bag. The cops considered that to be resisting arrest. Though the officers eventually contacted the City Walls program and confirmed McFly was working on a sanctioned mural, they decided to take him in for an outstanding warrant for a traffic violation. McFly spent the next 24 hours in a detention center.

McFly believes he could have been killed that day — not a far-fetched notion, considering the high-profile cases of unarmed Black people being killed by police that have happened since. "I just kept my composure because I felt like if I actually got angry, they can shoot," he previously told Metro Times.

Recalling that moment today, McFly says he did some soul-searching while in jail.

"Sometimes when I see events turning like that, I'm like, that's God talking to me," he says. "I got to be able to just stay serene, breathe, and really just get through it, just get through the storm. That's all it is sometimes. Sometimes some storms are harder than others, but as long as you can get through it, and breathe, and believe in yourself — I feel like that's what it really takes as far as confidence in myself, my faith in myself. Because I feel like faith in myself is faith in God, and sometimes I got to walk through that valley of death."

McFly says to this day the city never apologized to him about the incident, but he is eager to move forward from it.

"I feel like being two years away from it, I see it as growth," he says. "It was definitely growth. It was something just like, so much hit me at once, and I really had to sit down and think and make sure I can breathe and talk about what I'm doing, make sure I'm voicing my opinion, and make sure I'm telling my truth. ... I don't have no beef with no cops. I do my art. And that's all I wanted to say when it happened. Like, I'm just here to do my art. ... Maybe 'cause I'm Black with a spray can, I look like I'm doing graffiti and defacing property, but I never did graffiti. I always did murals."

He adds, "I wouldn't have changed it any other way, 'cause it happened. Sometimes stuff is written in the stars, you know, but now we downtown, and I still finished the Seven Mile one, and everybody loves it. I still get people sending me pictures of it and everything. So I feel like the city loves it even more to see how much blood, sweat, and tears I put into that."

In the distance, McFly gestures to Detroit's largest skyscraper. "It's still mind-blowing to see the Ren Cen right here," he says, humbled that his own art is now part of downtown's landscape.

click to enlarge Bedrock Detroit's Monroe Street Midway opened to the public last week. - COURTESY OF BEDROCK DETROIT
  • Courtesy of Bedrock Detroit
  • Bedrock Detroit's Monroe Street Midway opened to the public last week.

McFly says he always wanted to be an artist. As a teenager, he enrolled at the prestigious Detroit School of Arts high school, which counts the late R&B star Aaliyah as an alumna, who tragically died in a plane crash in the Bahamas at the apex of her career just before he attended. (On the day of our interview, McFly wears an Aaliyah T-shirt from Urban Outfitters.) "I was so hyped, like, 'I'm going to the school that Aaliyah went to' and everything," he says. "And then I was distraught as a kid, going through eighth and ninth grade and seeing that. But I feel like it still carries her spirit ... I felt blessed to be in the same school she was in. It was a small bunch in that school, probably like 300 to 400 students, but everybody was really focused on whatever they wanted to be."

After graduating, McFly enrolled at Detroit's College for Creative Studies, where he studied illustration and fine art before dropping out after about a year and a half for financial reasons. "Once the money started getting steep, I really had to make a choice," he says. "Like, I'm a Detroit artist, so I don't think I need to pay to be an artist in Detroit."

When he dropped out in 2009, he was working at Bob's Classic Kicks sneaker store on Woodward Avenue and came up with the idea to throw parties there. "It was like $3 to get in with Nikes, and $5 without Nikes," he says. "So it was just a shoe party."

That eventually turned into a monthly hip-hop showcase dubbed The Air Up There, which saw rappers like DeJ Loaf, Danny Brown, and Clear Soul Forces perform. "It ended up becoming like, my generation's Hip Hop Shop," he says. McFly launched his own music career as a hip-hop and electronic artist, creating beats as Edward Elektro, which led to him releasing music with the elusive DJ Moodymann's Mahogani Music label and performing at Movement electronic music fest. (His music carries the same postmodern pastiche of his visual art; a 2018 track samples the beloved Hasbro toy Bop It.)

In the meantime, McFly also focused on his visual art, linking up with fine-art print house 1XRun for limited-edition prints, as well as selling his own paintings at $100 pop-ups, as well as working on murals around town. "It's just like a whole crumb trail of music and art in Detroit," he says, "and I just been engulfed in it."

click to enlarge Sheefy McFly has collaborated with Detroit-based fine art print house 1xRun. - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy of the artist
  • Sheefy McFly has collaborated with Detroit-based fine art print house 1xRun.

Things were really looking up for McFly last year, when Birmingham's posh Robert Kidd Gallery announced a solo show. In a press release, gallery owner Gerard Marti called him "one of the most promising, and possibly most commercially successful American artist, muralist, rapper, and DJ of his generation." The show was scheduled for April — but was forced to cancel when the pandemic took hold.

"I think that caused a whole shift in my art," he says. "I was getting ready for this big show, then I couldn't show, and there was so many other things that I had planned. So I had to sit down — I kind of got anxious, and I was just stirring like crazy, you know?"

During the pandemic, McFly got a signal boost from Moodymann, who appears as a DJ in a virtual nightclub called the Music Locker in the Grand Theft Auto Online video game. There, Moodymann spun Detroit techno tracks, including McFly's. "I'm sick @moodymann313 playing my music in the new GTA," McFly tweeted at the time. He also got in on the NFT craze (or non-fungible tokens, which use blockchain technology to create one-of-a-kind digital artwork), linking with an artist to create an animated version of one of his paintings.

"I feel like, as an artist, I'm bouncing back and forth between learning mass production and learning how to get into the fine-art world," he says. "I don't want to put too much pressure on myself. Like, I know I'm still learning, but I'm just grateful to be learning with the top of the top. To be able to talk to 1xRun, and to be able to talk to Library Street Collective, to be able to talk to Robert Kidd Gallery ... like, these are the things that we all dream of, just being a Detroiter, working with the top galleries."

click to enlarge The Monroe Street Midway includes an outdoor roller rink designed by Sheefy McFly and basketball courts designed by artist Phillip Simpson. - COURTESY OF BEDROCK DETROIT
  • Courtesy of Bedrock Detroit
  • The Monroe Street Midway includes an outdoor roller rink designed by Sheefy McFly and basketball courts designed by artist Phillip Simpson.

In a statement, Library Street Collective heaped praise on McFly. "For a project that's intentionally focused on bringing together Detroiters in a fun and engaging way, Sheefy's recognizable bright-colored, graffiti-based artwork is perfect," the gallery says in an email to Metro Times. 1XRun's Jesse Cory has more praise. "Sheefy's years of dedication to his craft prove that an artist can create a unique style that transcends the imagination and becomes a part of our visual landscape," he says. "His abstract art tells a unique Detroit story period, and his translation of surrealism and pop art masters into his own voice was years in the making and is now becoming a part of Detroit's art language."

In the near future, McFly says he has an EP coming out that he made with the rapper Chuck Inglish. (He says he's considering doing an album-release show at the Monroe Midway if possible.) He says he'd also like to focus on his visual art. "After this, I really want to step back for probably like three, four months and just really focus on the body of work," he says. He'd also like to find a new studio space — "'cause my whole house is filled with paintings to this point, and I got to go bigger," he says.

He says he hopes he can be a mentor for other artists the way so many others have been a mentor for him.

"I'm thinking about different ways where I can inspire and help give back and just show [that] you can do what you want to do with your life," he says. "I feel like I wanted to be an artist my whole life. This is the only thing I ever wanted to do, and the only thing I've focused on, and this is all that I do. I'm a full-time artist now, so I want to just be a testament to being yourself, you know, just letting it be and being yourself no matter what happens, you just got to roll with the punches and keep it going. Sometimes when people are trying to become artists and creatives, they get 80% of the way and turn right back around, and sometimes you just keep going straight instead of turning around. I want to help the youth and help anybody because you don't have to be a certain age to be a rapper, dancer, painter, or designer."

He adds, "It's all been Detroit love, you know, people from music and arts — everybody's been showing me Detroit love. I try to approach everybody with humility and just show that I want to learn."

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