In 2015, Viranel Clerard had a modest idea to photograph murals he loved for a Tumblr blog. Today, he's catalogued over 1,000 for his website, The Detroit Mural Project
, with the goal of documenting every single mural in the city. He's subsequently been profiled by the Metro Times
, the Detroit News
, and even NBC
In other words, there's no one more knowledgeable or passionate about Detroit murals than Clerard.
While there's been no shortage of high-profile, beautiful murals painted downtown or in Eastern Market
, we wanted to ask Clerard about those that are less visible, either because they're on obscure buildings or out-of-the-way neighborhoods. With these commissions, the artist is often given more artistic freedom and the results can be spectacular.
Below are 10 amazing underground murals, in no particular order, as chosen by Clerard.
Artist: Bernal PerezLocation: 6600 W Vernor Hwy
This easy-to-miss mural on the side of a viaduct in Southwest Detroit depicts what looks like a father, daughter, and tiny tiger braving a tempestuous ocean on a dinghy. What are they heading for?
"Southwest Detroit has a lot of immigrants and it's clearly referencing that," Clerard says.
Though it changes all the time, this mural is currently Clerard's favorite.
Artist: Ellen RuttLocation: 7830 W Vernor Hwy
Clerard's favorite mural by Rutt, one of the more celebrated muralists in the city, who has pieces in The Belt and Eastern Market. "But this is her least talked about," he says.
Geometric shapes containing varying patterns and sharp colors match perfectly with the side of this brick building deep in Southwest Detroit. Some of the shapes looks vaguely like animal figures — there's one clear eye and eyelash — giving the mural a Picasso-esque design.
"I really like her art, but feel like it sometimes loses its impact when its in a highly-commercial environment. An artists' work shines more when its not under a spotlight," he says. "What does a pure work of Ellen Rutt look like? This is probably the best example."
Artist: W.C. BevanLocation: 9300 Kercheval Ave
Much like the Rutt mural, Bevan was told by the building owner that he could paint whatever he liked on the building. "What's the one mural that showcases all his talent?" Clerard says. "It's this one."
This mural was funded by the City of Detroit's City Walls program
, which was designed for building owners who were experiencing vandalism and getting blight tickets as a result.
"When a building gets a mural on it, it's a lot less likely to get tagged," Clerard says. "People who tag buildings respect muralists."
Artist: Ndubisi OkoyeLocation: 7900 Mack Ave
"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations" are both words from the Bible and what's painted as part of a mural on the side of The Commons
, a new laundromat, coffee shop, and community space on the east side.
There's a lot going on in this mural: a black man and woman draped in pan-African colors are front and center surrounded by Christian imagery, a silhouette of the downtown Detroit skyline, and a black and white floral arrangement.
Clerard loves this mural because of who is represented. "I do tours with grade school kids all over Detroit," he says. "They often notice how there's someone in it that looks like them. To have faces like that, which are that big, shows them that they can be a muralist and that they're represented in this neighborhood."
Artist: Pat PerryLocation: 2605 Newark St
One of the newest murals on this list is also one of the most concrete. The mural portrays the lower half of adults, often holding hands with children and wearing working class clothing, carrying passports and suitcases. They seem to have just gotten off a train.
It's likely depicting the era of mass immigration during the early 20th century. The fact that it's on a viaduct that runs past Michigan Central Station is especially poignant and appropriate.
Clerard has personally met or is friends with nearly all the muralists on this list. He says that the artist, Pat Perry, has close ties to the people in his community and that this mural is a tribute to them.
Artist: Jonny AlexanderLocation: 12355 Gratiot Ave
This dream-like mural of a deconstructed house and swimming pool floating in space is on the side of an otherwise nondescript building: a Boost Mobile store.
"This is a pretty random commission," Clerard says. "Somehow Boost Mobile allowed him to make this surrealist, faux-3D-looking thing."
In curating his website, Clerard has three rules for eligibility: the mural must be publicly accessible, on an exterior wall, and not for commercial or self-promotional purposes. But he included this one because "the [Boost Mobile] sign is separate from the mural. The mural itself doesn't promote any brand."
Artist: Freddy DiazLocation: 9429 W Fort St
This might be our
favorite mural on the list. Commissioned by a hydroponics equipment supplier, High Dro Zone, this psychedelic mural has magical mushrooms, monsters, and seems to take place on an alien world.
Clerard says Freddy Diaz has been painting murals since he was in high school. He grew up tagging in Southwest Detroit, and one reason why there's so many outstanding murals there is because the area fosters art, and encourages productive outlets for youth's passions.
"Liquor stores and small business in southwest say, 'Of course you can paint on my wall — this is your spot,'" Clerard says. "If it weren't for the community buy-in, there might be a lot more tagging."
Artist: Michael Olszewski Location: 4765 14th St
One of the few murals in the city that genuinely looks three-dimensional; the "spikes" protruding from the building seem to follow you as you pass it.
The painter, Michael Olszewski, is also pretty interesting. "He is a business owner," Clerard says. "He doesn't like to be called a muralist or an artist."
That's despite the fact that he has meticulously painted several murals on his own buildings. "He just wants to make his buildings pretty. He does them all by hand with foam brushes — no spray paint, no lift, just ladders."
Artist: Various (Designed by Chazz Miller)Location: Near Birwood Ave south of Eight Mile Rd
Often called the Birwood Wall or the Detroit Eight Mile Wall — though it's not quite on Eight Mile Road — this wall is an infamous relic of segregation and redlining. White residents, who wanted to keep their property values high, erected it to keep out the black neighbors.
Today, the area is largely African-American but the wall remains. Instead of tearing it down, local residents decided to use it as an education tool. In 2006 they commissioned Chazz Miller to design and help paint a mural across it depicting important events and figures in the civil rights movement.
"They painted it with vibrant colors," Clerard says. "As far as its artistic merits, it's not necessarily of the highest quality because it was done by community members and kids. But that matters much less than the story and the reasons for why they painted it."
Artist: Douglas HoekzemaLocation: 22298 W 7 Mile Rd
This fractal-like mural on 7 Mile Road doesn't really have many other murals near it. When Clerard first saw it, he recognized it as the work of Hoekzema (aka, HOXXOH). He couldn't believe that this world-famous artist from Miami would paint a mural on a nondescript stretch of road in Detroit.
While it wasn't the first mural Clerard shot, it's the first one added to his website. For that reason alone, you know he likes it.
Photos by Viranel Clerard.