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.
Traditionally, metro Detroit hasn’t been a hotspot for contemporary murals — whether you call it graffiti or street art. 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 project saw more than a dozen pieces 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.
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 in that city within a city. Many of the works there are what Thewes calls effective “gateway pieces,” especially a piece — by the artists “Reyes” — that sprawls all over the western wall of PAVA Post 113 at 2238 Holbrook, greeting motorists arriving from I-75. Thewes says that street art can make an area cooler, raise property values, serve as a focal point for attracting businesses, even helping property values go up. And what a great location for this sort of thing: right down the street from the iconic Kowalski sausage sign, near the bustling Café 1923, and up the street from a bunch of new community gardens going in.
Three more “gateway pieces” welcome motorists coming into Hamtramck from Hamtramck Drive and the south side. Most notable is a piece on a half-wall just south of the railroad viaduct by Revok and German artist Flying Fortress that says “Welcome to Hamtramck,” with a carefree, palms-up cartoon guy smiling at onlookers.
Another standout piece is just up the street at Joseph Campau and Dan. It’s by a street artist named Askew, from New Zealand, someone Thewes says is “maybe one of the people pushing the medium the most. In his work, every piece is really different. And this one [in Hamtramck] is based on America, with red, white and blue and black, and stars and stripes all sort of bubbling up. It’s just gorgeous.”
Up a few more blocks, 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.
For those entering Hamtramck from the north, they’ll be met with a piece by Tristan Eaton on a half-wall above a dentist’s office at 11451 Joseph Campau. Other than a fading Western Auto sign, the wall had been blank for years, except for some rather uncreative graffiti tags on it. Now the wall has a drawing of a fanciful, owl-like creature with flames shooting out of it. It’s a departure for Eaton; according to Thewes, Eaton usually favors illustrations of beautiful women with flowing hair.
Oh, and there was one more unplanned artwork, a piece by TrustoCorp affixed over an old Snethcamp auto dealership sign affixed to the dentist’s shop wall. Thewes says, “The company had gone out of business, so they didn’t think it was going to be a problem.” It read, “Everything will get better, and featured a cartoon devil bearing the TrustoCorp logo. 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, who claim that after they turned off the camera he “started yelling all sorts of horrible names at the people just trying to take pictures and supposedly had his bat wielding wife call the police.”
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.
One local resident we spoke with, an artist who has lived in Hamtramck for more than 20 years, said under condition of anonymity, “Nothing has ever made me feel so ashamed of living in Hamtramck.”
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.
There were not just one, but two hot-button issues being discussed at the meeting: the murals and an ordinance affecting Hamtramck’s owners of ice cream trucks. 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, slated to be adopted this week, included public art and street art as ways to deal with illegal graffiti. The idea is an interesting one. Instead of erasing graffiti every time a gang member or tagger bombs a wall, why not try something new? Friedmann’s point, that gangs and illegal graffiti artists respect the leaders of the street art world, suggested that supporting legitimate graffiti projects 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.
It came as news to some on the council that the proposal had been submitted, reviewed and approved, with sensible provisions for the removal or replacement of any public art if necessary.
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.
At this point, a long-haired man with headwear that had fire streaking down the sides, who had been squatting by the door, cried out, “How many were from out of town?” before being silenced.
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.
What’s more, in a city that seems to face the brink of bankruptcy every few months, it was calming news that the program used no city funds, as it was sponsored by the paint company.
Comments from the public were, for the most part, favorable, and those commenters were polite, articulate and nonconfrontational. Those who objected to the art were pretty much the opposite. One man said, “I thought the mural was of six city councilmembers carrying Hamtramck to its grave.” Council was not amused. He said it again. Then he made fun of their thoughtful expressions and left the podium.
Another man admitted to collecting the signatures petitioning the city to remove the Sever’s art. He admitted that the photo accompanying the petition was of the artwork in progress. (We wonder if the casket had been labeled “Street Art” yet — an important point that was left unclear.)
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, who addressed those concerned 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!
Also in attendance was Contra Project’s Thewes himself, speaking in support of the work, and allaying the body’s concerns in person.
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. In an Antiques Roadshow moment, Thewes postulated a bit, saying, “Well, it was meant to be a one-year or two-year project, but they’ve extended their activities and are now having exhibitions and continuing to work. That would mean that prices are going up. I’d say between $10,000 and $20,000.”
Oh, really? Who are the vandals now?