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Metro Detroit street art project inspires, offends

Throughout the area, social commentary by local, national artists triggers debate

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Posted: Monday, May 21, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 11:39 am, Fri Apr 5, 2013.

Residents of Detroit and nearby cities may have noticed a surge in colorful artworks thanks to what has become known as “The Detroit Beautification Project,” an art initiative focused on developing murals throughout the metro-Detroit area. This project is a result of collaboration between Royal Oak’s 323 East Gallery, the Los Angeles-based Seventh Letter street art crew, and paint sponsored by spray paint company Montana Cans.

The project began after a Seventh Letter crew artist who works under the moniker Revok, moved to Detroit, and soon became intrigued by the possibilities offered by the wealth of abandoned and decaying properties that Detroit has to offer.

After meeting up with 323 East, Revok created a print for the gallery’s 1XRun division, which helped fund the project.

Matt Eaton of Contra Projects gave access to several buildings downtown for the murals to be done.

Revok isn’t the first infamous street artist to see the possibility in Detroit.

Just last year, Banksy, the mysterious London stencil artist, left his mark in several locations around the city, many of them leading to a firestorm of controversy.

It would appear that the climate is much the same now, as some of the pieces created for the Detroit Beautification Project have become the epicenter for a whirlwind of debate.

“The Death of Street Art” by the artist "Sever" depicts a coffin labeled "Street Art" with pall-bearers drawn in a mock style of famous street artists such as Obey, Banksy and Kaws. Although it was meant to be a commentary on the culture of street art, many local residents felt uneasy at the sight of a coffin painted on a city owned property.

Before long, a petition was started in an effort to have the piece removed, which in turn prompted a counter petition to allow the piece to stay. Debate over the mural went all the way up to a Hamtramck City Council meeting, with both sides so well represented it was the biggest turn out to a meeting in recent memory.

After much debate, it was decided that the mural would remain, with Hamtramck's mayor, Karen Majewski, saying, “Art should not necessarily be safe, art should be something that makes people think and talk…so that it not only creates beauty, it creates discussion.”

The city council meeting wasn’t the end of the discussion, however, as days later the words “This is not my city” were spray painted beside the mural. The crude lettering suggested it was more than likely not by a tagger, but rather a disgruntled citizen, although the Detroit Beautification Project has raised some issues among local street artists as well.

Some artists seem thrilled at the chance to see works firsthand by the world renowned artists that inspired them, while others see the visiting artists as “tourists”, taking away wall space that could be used to showcase local talent.

One piece off of Grand River featuring an obese Captain America with a Slurpee in hand was vandalized with “Go Home” written in white across the super hero’s bulging blue belly.

Despite these clashes, many residents seem to be in favor of the project and 323 East’s plans to continue, stating that this was only “phase one,” and that they’re planning on adding more artists throughout the summer.

“We have about four or five coming in, in a few weeks, and hopefully all summer long we’ll bring more people in…We’re trying to work with a couple local, Detroit artists right now,” said 323 East’s Dan Armand. “It’s going to expand into more mediums and genres.”

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