They say Detroit is the Wild West of graffiti. Or at least they used to.
Suffering decades of economic blight, stocked with a hundred thousand vacant buildings, and a police force with bigger problems on their hands, Detroit has become known worldwide as a street artist’s paradise. As the city depopulated, more walls became available for murals, tags, wheat pasting, stuffed animals, you name it.
Often misunderstood as a signifier of blight, Detroit’s graffiti, like all graffiti is more a reaction to it. There is a fundamental human need to make art, to mark territory, to write messages to one another on walls. Street art is in fact an indicator of a healthy community – a community speaking to itself, in public, in the commons. It is the last surviving classic art movement, a pure act of tactical urbanism long before the term existed.
Detroit’s so-called rebirth narrative is drenched in billionaire cash, framed by developer public relations branding. It is a marketing pitch that profits from the grit and soul of Detroit’s illegal street art while those with money aim to eradicate as much unsanctioned artwork as possible, lest the nervous new tourists start fidgeting.
Recently, Detroit has become a city where despite hundreds of unsolved murders and arsons, the cops have time to prosecute Shephard Fairey. It’s a city where Dan “I’m Watching You” Gilbert personally trains his spy cameras on teenage taggers and puts bounties on their heads.
In my time in Detroit I’ve seen the politics that surround street art here: capitalizing on the works themselves, vilification of artists for doing their work. But mostly I enjoy simply exploring the city, finding new pieces, documenting them, seeing them change over time, and studying how they fit in or stand out among the fabric of the neighborhood.
Street art, especially the illegal kind, is an essential, subtle act of rebellion that confirms the sense that regular people should rightly control the direction and aims of urban life. I’ve said before, the ownership class may own a wall, but we’re the ones who have to look at it.
While stickers get scraped off poles and tags get buffed by hourly wage ‘Ambassadors’ downtown, there’s still about 138 square miles of metropolitan wilderness throughout Detroit. In all the ways art functions as art, Detroit functions, too.
Despite the hardship, this city will thrive because of every day people – the musicians, the artists, the community organizers, the laborers and the unemployed who’ve devoted their lives to a Detroit that absolutely hustles harder than any other city. I plan to keep documenting the writing on the wall for a good long while. See you in the streets.
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All images copyright Hart Noecker.