Detroit is a visual city. From the streamlined aesthetic of Wayne State to the glimmering downtown view of Windsor and the casinos, the city has a distinct look. The architecture is renaissance, the design is modern and the graffiti is rampant.
From the central area of the city, the neighborhoods are crawling with scrawling paint. Entire streets filled with abandoned buildings are also filled with color and purpose.
The words “Gasm” and “Marm” are commonplace on walls and doors. The lines that craft the letters are filled in beautifully. It seems that whoever is spraying and tagging these decrepit lots and buildings is proud of his or her work.
Detroit is well-known for entire neighborhoods in shambles and falling apart, and while some of this graffiti may be gang-related, it’s still a conversation happening in the city.
Graffiti always comes in giant groups surrounding each other, much like a bathroom wall; it’s a discourse. One wall has the word “Sham” written in giant green letters on it. From the word are two arrows pointing to two other pieces of graffiti signifying a different language and approach to art.
One artist, who approached me while I happened to be looking at his graffiti, said it really is like a conversation.
“When there’s a building and there’s good graffiti on it I’ll leave it alone but if there’s some really bad stuff on it I’ll draw a red check mark next to it, or a check mark with a red line through it, to let them know how I feel,” the artist, “Kef,” said. “And some people do the same to my stuff. We’re talking to each other.”
Kef specializes in African graffiti and graffiti art. He paints silhouettes of African women and children on walls and crafts elephants and walking men with staffs. He and his brother work down Oakland Street to brighten the area, specifically by covering an old church in peace signs and helping to create the North End Community Gardens, he said. They have crafted a giant flower that sits as a monument outside the garden, he said.
While most of the graffiti downtown feels like signatures and quickly drawn symbols, large community projects like the North End Gardens and the wall known as the Illuminated Mural at Brush Street and Grand Boulevard, are extraordinary.
The mural remains on the wall of an abandoned factory. Created in 2009 by the Public Arts Detroit, it stands at least 50 feet tall. The bright blue wall has colors cascading down its entire length making it a beacon for anyone who can see it.
More communities need to work together and create things like the North End Gardens or the Illuminated Mural to show two things: First, it would bring children and adults of a community together to create something beautiful; and second, large-scale community art projects bring value to the neighborhood and brighten the lives of those who live there.
Graffiti, and all art, is never a bad thing, as long as it isn’t done in a destructive way. Obviously it has been deemed illegal, but that has become the beauty of graffiti recently.
Big-name artists like Bansky and Detroit’s own Trtl have brightened and enlightened people with their art.
Real graffiti artists like Kef aren’t threatened by the gang symbols and tags up in neighborhoods, mainly because he knows they are bad pieces of art. True graffiti, art that remains in city projects and enriches the culture of the neighborhood, trumps scribbles any day.
And if some teenager wants to write curse words or gang signs on a store front then fine, but don’t gratify his actions by calling him a graffiti artist. He’s a vandal and a delinquent, plain and simple.
The word graffiti has become an all-too-dirty word and it needs to be restored, or revamped, much like the great city it inhabits.