Detroit area becomes canvas for street artists

July 13, 2012 • Entertainment

A man walks past “The Death of Street Art,” on a city-owned building at Goodson and Joseph Campau, in Hamtramck, Mich. on June 10, 2012. Idiosyncratic murals painted by some of the world’s most famous street and graffiti artists have been popping up on walls across Metro Detroit, from Eastern Market to Hamtramck to Royal Oak. (AP Photo/The Detroit News, Brandy Baker)

DETROIT (AP) — Idiosyncratic murals painted by some of the world’s most famous street and graffiti artists have been popping up on walls across Metro Detroit, from Eastern Market to Hamtramck to Royal Oak.

Behind the murals are Hamtramck-based arts group Contra Projects and the owners of Royal Oak-based 323 East gallery, which together hatched the Detroit Beautification Project.

Asked why they formed the group, Contra Projects director Matthew Eaton gestured at illicit graffiti tags defacing a brick wall in Eastern Market.

“Have you seen this place?” he asked, looking around. “What’s the downside of letting artists make the city look more colorful and engaging?”

The two art boosters raised $40,000 from online print sales in early spring to fly in 15 artists from around the [auth] globe. They estimate another 20 artists have come here on their own dime. Altogether, aerosol can-armed visitors from as far away as Germany have put up about 85 pieces. Only 20 locations were painted specifically as part of the Beautification Project.

“These will continue to grow with more artists over the next several months, hopefully including more prominent and visible locations,” Eaton said.

Works range in style from a cartoon about a funeral that has irritated some residents to a more than 300-foot-long group effort that covers the back of Hamtramck’s Keyworth Stadium in an explosion of color and well-etched form.

The public has received the art with mixed reviews, raising questions about what should go up in the public domain, who gets to decide and who should create the art.

Graffiti art is usually unlawful, quickly sprayed before police arrive. However, property owners approve all Beautification Project artworks painted on their buildings.

Hamtramck officials and property owners were so accommodating to the Beautification Project that most of the murals went up there first. It’s part of the city’s plan to spotlight its artistic side, head off illegal graffiti, and, perhaps grab a little of the global cool Detroit has been enjoying on the international art stage.

Jason E. Friedmann, Hamtramck’s director of economic and community development, said the town has long been an art haven for creative types, but that side hasn’t always been visible to outsiders.

“We’re trying to get our underground creative thing out in the open to underline that this is part of what Hamtramck is all about,” he said.

In many respects, the Hamtown gambit isn’t that different from other attempts to use public art to perk up flagging commercial districts, from the decades-long mural tradition in Detroit’s Mexicantown to the Wynwood Walls street art program in Miami, where artists turned a desolate warehouse district into a hub for galleries and restaurants.

While Detroiters appear to have accepted the new art, there has been some pushback in Hamtramck. A couple of murals were defaced, and residents there presented dueling petitions, both pro and con, at a mid-May City Council meeting.

The mural that generated the most ire is a cartoon by Atlanta-based graffiti artist Sever. The piece features six alarming-looking pallbearers carrying a casket labeled “Street Art.”

“The first day it went up, I said, ‘This is disgusting,'” said Mickey Pokoj, who lives down the street from the piece. Pokoj rounded up 48 signatures from other opponents and presented them at the City Council meeting, demanding that at least the Sever mural be removed.

The City Council is standing by the murals, which include a “Welcome to Hamtramck” sign at the south end of town and a meticulous black-and-white abstract near the old American Axle plant.

Contra Projects’ Eaton, who suspected the Sever mural might cause controversy, explained it is a commentary on “the commercialization of street art.”

But for Maria Pronko, owner of Maria’s Comida in Hamtramck, the flap is all about the town’s changing identity.

“Hamtramck is evolving,” she said. “There are a lot of artists who live in the city, and it does have that gritty urban feel that attracts hipsters. But this isn’t the 1940s Poletown it once was. The (new) art represents the city well, and the kind of people who are moving in and opening up businesses.”

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