On Monday, city officials went after building owners on Grand River Avenue whose buildings had artwork created by beautification project the Grand River Creative Corridor. According to the GRCC's Derek Weaver, the city issued almost $8,000 in fines. The stunt caused a palpable uproar, and by Wednesday, Duggan personally apologized to Weaver and other business owners and dismissed all tickets.
The problem is that inspectors were blindly ticketing without any regard for whether the work was in fact vandalism or not.
As The Detroit News noted, "on Wednesday, Duggan said inspectors from the Building, Safety and Engineering Department were 're-trained' to better understand distinctions between public art and unwanted graffiti."
To us, the distinction between a mere graffiti tag and commissioned street art is usually pretty obvious. This isn't a foolproof method, but the distinction can oftentimes be determined by asking yourself "Did the artist need to rent a cherry picker, or does it look like they just wrote their name in an hour during the wee hours of the night?" But there is a simpler solution for the less artistically inclined: you know, like maybe ask questions first, slap with fines later?
Sure, there's a gray area with street art, as The Detroit News also noted:
How tone deaf was the Duggan administration? A few blog posts and phone calls got the mayor's attention by Wednesday. Yes, it was true that he hates graffiti and is stepping up enforcement. No, it's not true that building owners can no longer display murals, or that the 150-year-old tradition of painting on Detroit buildings had come to an abrupt halt.
Duggan admitted "There are growing pains," assuring that henceforth building owners will not be ticketed for authorizing art on their buildings. However, building owners will be responsible for unauthorized graffiti on their properties, facing fines if they don't remove it within 14 days.
Detroit city officials have a long history of oscillating between support and disdain for street art — one needs to look only as far as the saga of the Heidelberg Project for an example. The city also seems to have a propensity for cracking down disproportionately hard on artists and art afionados, as they did in the "funkiest shakedown in human history."