The Cleanup of Detroit Has Erased Graffiti History
I was shocked when I drove through Detroit earlier this year. Throughout much of the city, the buff had advanced like an unstoppable disease—the best graffiti had been covered in blotchy gray and white paint. What happened to the one-time graf mecca?
All photos by the author
I was shocked when I drove through Detroit earlier this year. Throughout much of the city, the buff had advanced like an unstoppable disease. Blotchy gray, white, and brown stains of paint covered up almost every bit of graffiti in sight. Even side streets and back alleys all the way out to 8 Mile Road, the city's famed northern boundary, were covered in fresh coats of buff paint. What happened?
The city's plan for exiting bankruptcy protection at the end of 2014 included provisions to eradicate "blight." Mayor Mike Duggan, a long-time graffiti foe, created an anti-graffiti task force which stepped up prosecutions. The city also started fining business owners for failing to remove graffiti from their properties. "Graffiti is a business in Detroit now," legendary Detroit graffiti writer DONT told me. "City workers get paid to paint over it, property owners pay fines for having it on their buildings, and the city government makes money off all of that."
From the point of view of many residents and property owners, the eradication of graffiti may be a sign of Detroit's much-touted rebirth, but for many writers it spells the end of an incredible cycle of creativity. Not long ago, Detroit was considered by many to be the graffiti capital of the US, and perhaps the world—a vast playground with a near-unlimited supply of walls where writers could paint undisturbed in broad daylight.
"Detroit was a huge ghost town growing up," Detroit native DROID told me. It looked "like a person having a mental breakdown. If you were white and driving around residential streets, you were there for only one thing: drugs. There literally was no other reason to be in most of the city except to buy drugs, scrap metal, or paint walls."
In a city teeming with corruption, violence, and arson, catching kids with spraypaint was not a priority for law enforcement. The freedom to paint made for an amazing sight—there was once graffiti everywhere, and since it took some effort to get to Detroit if you weren't from there, the local competition was high, the risk was low, and much of the work was pretty damn good.
I first visited the city in early 2013 on a quest to find and document as much of its graffiti as possible, and was immediately hooked. I returned three more times, witnessed the city's rapid transformation, and explored its buildings and neighborhoods with a rotating cast of other photographers and graffiti writers.
It was generally understood then that the police only responded to violent crime calls. One time, as a friend and I climbed over the crumbling ruins of a house in the Black Bottom neighborhood, a sedan with two serious-looking young men stopped by the road. One was black and the other white, so it was logical to assume that they had to be either graffiti writers or undercovers. It turned out to be the latter. "We know what you're doing," one of them yelled at us from the car. "Make sure to make some noise when you go into any buildings. There are crazy people around here and you don't want to surprise them." Then they drove off.
We ignored their advice. Better to go in quietly and to see than to be seen, we figured.
Inside the city's abandoned factories, warehouses, schools, and recreational facilities, I documented the work left behind by waves of graffiti writers: Locals like PORAB, TURDL, ELMER, and DONT, who had discovered their hometown's potential long before anyone else; trailblazer's like REVOK MSK from California, whose skill and connections elevated the game in Detroit; ambitious all-around writers like BEGR and HAELER, as well as worldwide vandal PEAR, whose epic beef with Detroit's GASM scarred walls all over the city; outlaws like DROID and his fellow 907 crew members, whose giant roller paint letters and fire extinguisher tags covered entire buildings. Sometimes I'd even stumble upon the work of the phantom-like KUMA, whose charismatic throw-up characters popped up seemingly out of nowhere.
For the most part, the out-of-towners were welcomed by local writers. "I really never thought I would see writers I looked up to, such as [New Yorkers] CES, WANE, RISK, and FUTURA come here and get down," Detroit-bred writer SEKT recalled.
"Detroit's relationship to graffiti has changed quite a bit in the last few years," said DONT. "When I was growing up [in the early 90s] painting graffiti in Detroit, there were five active writers at best. I felt like I knew where every piece of graffiti was, and if there was a new one I could almost smell it. In my early years of writing, I really had to sell people on coming to Detroit to paint. All that changed a few years ago when we saw a flood of writers from all over the world come here; there was graffiti three-levels-high on most walls."
The mother of all abandoned buildings was once the Packard Automotive plant. It consists of 3.5 million square feet of facilities spread out over 40 acres. Auto manufacturing was shut down in 1958, and gradually all of its buildings were abandoned by subsequent manufacturers. The Packard was the site of the infamous flight of the garbage truck, served as a set for TV shows and movies like Transformers, and became a prime destination for urban explorers, graffiti writers, and other misfits. Over the course of several decades, a vast amount of graffiti had been painted throughout the complex in a race with nature's elements and scrappers looking to extract anything of value by knocking down its walls.
I made a point of visiting the Packard whenever I was in Detroit. To me, its ongoing decay and, recently, the more attentive presence of security guards, was symptomatic of the city's transformation. There are so few walls left in the complex that it's hardly worth sneaking around security to get inside. Other major abandoned structures around the city have also become increasingly inaccessible. Dequindre Cut, formerly a forlorn jungle-like trench along Detroit's Eastern Market neighborhood, now features a family-friendly bike path that leads all the way to the waterfront, and illegal graffiti at Eastern Market has been replaced by legal murals. The Brewster houses, an emptied housing project that had been painted to look as if the buildings were wearing tribalistic war paint, had been razed completely. So had tens of thousands of other structures across the city. In their place, a new stadium and low-slung housing developments have sprung up.
The city's ongoing tear-down of abandoned structures, its graffiti clean-up campaign, and stepped-up law enforcement have largely succeeded in stamping out Detroit's graffiti history, much like the whitewashing of New York's subways in the 80s. As a result, the graffiti circus has, for the most part, left Detroit. Out-of-towners rarely visit the city to paint anymore, once again leaving what few spots remain to the locals.
Has Detroit perhaps become too safe for graffiti? "Make no mistake, in most neighborhoods it's the same as it ever was," DONT clarified. "There are a handful of neighborhoods on the up and up, and those areas offer safety and convenience, which is great. As far as art goes, there are more opportunities than ever [in Detroit] these days, and as far as graffiti goes, well, that's up to graffiti writers."
See more photos from Ray's Detroit visits below.
Ray Mock is the founder of Carnage NYC and has been documenting graffiti in New York and around the world for ten years, publishing more than two dozen limited edition zines and books. Follow him on Instagram.