Does art hold the power to knock us down, and hurl us from the ground where we stood? Graffiti writer, muralist and street artist Fel3000ft says he hopes so. For over 35 years, this native son’s been painting on Detroit’s buildings, walls and tunnels, crafting vibrant messages of renewal, identity, and inclusion. He says he wants his work to hit the viewer in a way that’s not soon forgotten.
Model D met up with Fel in the New Center neighborhood as he was putting the finishing touches on his latest project. “The Justice Wall” spans the side of a one-story law firm at 821 W. Milwaukee St. owned by attorneys Ali Koussan and Johnny Hamood. The mural features Lady Justice, her sight covered with a blindfold—a typical aspect of her characterization, and her arm extended to hold swinging scales. Vines of brightly colored roses entangle her body that breaks open at the skin, revealing inner workings.
Since the pandemic hit, Fel’s says there haven’t been opportunities for him to create public art. This is his first piece this year. Many of his clients had to put plans on hold due to COVID-19 budget challenges. The seasoned street artist, known for works like the Hopcat building and 10 pieces in Ford Field, says he’s been battling some depression this year while not being able to do the thing that makes him tick. It feels good to be back, he says.
Over two hours and a heavy rainstorm, Fel talked with Model D about his new piece, about coming up as a street artist in Detroit, and how public art that challenges the viewer and sparks meaningful conversation between people is needed now more than ever.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. For more on Fel3000ft, the story behind his name, why he wears a mask, and to hear from Ali Koussan who hired Fel to paint “The Justice Wall,” listen to the audio story by Sarah Williams.
Model D: You describe yourself as a street artist, a graffiti writer, and a muralist. Can you tell me what the differences are in those?
Fel3000ft: So the difference between street art or mural art and graffiti art is that a lot of the murals are sanctioned by the owners of the buildings or through coalitions who hire people to come in to do the work, or they donate their walls. But graffiti art is more on the cusp of being a very rebellious form of art. They don't ask questions, they don't ask for permission, they just do.
Oh, there's one other thing that does separate between street art and graffiti art. Graffiti art is very purist. So they won't use any extra stuff. Like in street art, you would use a paintbrush or a roller brush to get your effect or you might airbrush or whatever. There's no rules. But with graffiti art, it's strictly about using cans and having can control and catching those spots that are really hard to get illegally.Fel3000ft puts the finishing touches on his latest work, "The Justice Wall" in New Center.
Model D: Do you still do both?
No comment. Just kidding. I still do the graffiti stuff in the sense that I do work strictly with cans, but I don’t go around doing illegal stuff. I'd say about 20 years ago, I was an illegal artist, and realized I had a platform that I could use to help better an environment. And anyone who lived in Detroit around that time knows Detroit was a mess. I spoke a lot about community and about change. And I was kind of upset at first, like, why isn't anybody standing up for what's going on in our communities. Where are our people? We have protesters and people standing up every day today. But if you think about 20 years ago, it wasn't very popular. People had been over it. So I thought, you know, I have a platform, I could use my voice in a positive way. Why not? And that's how I started getting into more legal work.
Model D: Can I ask how old you are? When did you start doing graffiti art in Detroit?
I’m 48. I started doing graffiti art in Detroit in 1982 when I was 11. As far as documentation goes — and this is just as far as I know, I don't know this to be absolute — but there's a book called "The History of American Graffiti" by Roger Gastman, that talks about graffiti in each city. He went around and checked with everybody and, come to find out, “Shades” and I started the same year. But Shades started six months before me and prior to that there's no documentation. So that makes me the second guy ever to paint with a spray paint can in the city of Detroit, as far as we know.
Model D: What brought you into it?
Fel3000ft: I had kids that moved into my neighborhood from the Bronx. And back in the day, the Bronx was the hub for graffiti art, real proper graffiti art and hip-hop culture. I don't know the reason that they moved from the Bronx to Detroit, but they lived just a few blocks over, and because of their accents and because of their culture and them being from a different spot, we got way into it. Well, every year in the summer, they would go back to visit relatives and they would come back with all this really rich hip-hop music and graffiti art on pictures, like Polaroids and stuff. And I just emulated it. Me and a buddy of mine kept trying to draw it. He was a preacher's son and too afraid to grab a spray paint can and go do it, but I wasn't, you know, I just went for it.
Model D: Through the years, it’s been argued that commissioned art opportunities are too often given to artists from other places. How common is it that Detroit artists get the chance to be paid for public art here?
Fel3000ft: I would say the watershed moment for homegrown artists was when we started seeing Murals in the Market [started in 2015] take place. If it wasn't for 1xRUN opening the door to local artists and different communities of art, showing shine that there is talent here, we probably wouldn't have as much as we do. Before that, I could count on my hand maybe three to four guys who were getting murals, and getting spots and being allowed to paint. And now I see an influx of way more original artists from the city getting opportunities.
Model D: Alright, let’s talk about this mural.
Fel3000ft: Well, I've got some mixed feelings about this wall. In this day and age, how fortunate was it that a law office said hey, we want you to paint whatever you want on the wall and gave me complete open ability. I think that doing Lady Justice on a wall right now, with all of the injustice going on, and people rising up against the powers that be, what an important time in our life to see such an image. The mural talks about law, it talks about justice, but the flowers and the organic nature talk about the organics of where we're from. So it's about indigenous law. And it's about Detroit's law and Detroit's justice, and where we all stand in that place. You can see there's fractures in that, that show the inner workings.
Anytime I do anything with gears, it's about identity. It's about what makes things tick. And anytime I do anything with floral patterns, it's an homage to where I'm from, about the organic nature of my personal being and my personal experiences in Detroit. If you look at the scales, there are these eternal flames, and there's an eternal presence of us constantly fighting for real justice and for a real common playing ground. And I think now, more than ever, it's so important to tell that story.
Law is supposed to be blind. Justice is supposed to be blind. True justice has to be impartial. If you really digest this piece and if you put it in the place it's in right now, what’s it really saying? Are we blind? Justice, is it blind? Are people getting what they're supposed to? If you drive down the street, and you have to worry that you're going to get pulled over because you're African American, and if you're going to survive going to the store, is that justice? We have to start leveling the playing field, you know.
Model D: You often leave a quote or message on your artwork. Why is that? What will you write on "The Justice Wall"?
Fel3000ft: I like to leave what I'm thinking next to my pieces. If you've ever seen the girl with the universe piece near Art Block, it talks about us being the same species, the same one people despite whatever shade or tone we are. We’re the same, and the moment we start treating each other like that, with kindness, is the moment we start moving forward as a society in a positive way, as one unison. Two years later, this is still a very important statement. But nobody would know what that was unless I said something about it. You know, if I tell you a little bit about myself, not just give you a little bit visually, but give you a little bit of my spirit and my soul, then the narrative becomes stronger, and it causes a little bit more conversation between us as people.
The more I paint ["The Justice Wall"] the more the message is not coming. Because I feel like the message is already there. And I feel like when people walk by it, or they drive by, I think that it'll cause them to draw to some kind of conclusion. If I give them an emotion they can take with them, whether positive or negative, then it's become a successful piece of art. And it's become a centerpiece for conversation around kitchen tables, which is where change really happens, right around a dinner table or breakfast table.
"The Justice Wall" by Fel3000ft
Model D: Do you have a favorite work of art you’ve done here in the city?
Fel3000ft: Hopcat is one of my favorite murals, particularly because in 2012, when I did that, I had been painting in the city for years, but nobody really ever took notice. So it was a moment that gave me an opportunity to really swing for the stands. That piece is about identity. It's about our identity and if you drove around the city, at that point, people would say, well, Detroit's beautiful, it's just broken. But if you look underneath and scratch the surface, you see the gears and the working parts of Detroit and its community, you find out how beautiful it really is. And I had been in the city all my life. Other people [street artists] left and went to other cities, like New York and Chicago and L.A., but I stayed, believing that this day would happen, and it did.
That piece tells a story about the fight between the mother of invention and Mother Nature. I come up on the south end of Detroit around Delray, where you could drive around in the city and just see trees growing through houses. And at that point, it just took me in. Like, here we are in the Motor City where we build everything, yet, Mother Nature's reclaiming. So it's about the identity of a people struggling to bring back a city that they love against all odds. And Hopcat was one of the very few people at that time willing to invest right in the heart of the city.
Model D: Is there anything on your bucket list when it comes to public art and Detroit?
Fel3000ft: I don't really have any more of a bucket list. I’ll tell you I was kind of afraid that once we saw change and growth happen in the city, there might not be relevant to what I'm trying to say about a better Detroit. But I’ve realized there's always room for growth. When we have change come in and things are for the better, now we have to talk about gentrification. How do we help people who put their roots here and fought to stay here? How do we keep them safe? How do we make sure their rights aren't being infringed on? What's that conversation like?
And after everything that happened with George Floyd, I mean, now more than ever is the time to talk about the way we see people. And how we identify — I'm not talking about as African American or Irish or Greek American or whatever — I'm talking about as a human species. How do we identify with each other in a way that's supportive, you know? Anybody, male or female, no matter how you identify as a person, or what your sexual orientation is, or whatever the tint is of your skin, should be able to get the same benefits and rights as every other human being if we're truly American and truly free.
So, getting opportunities to have these narratives will give me a lot more running. You know what I mean? Like, the more I'm passionate about a subject, the more opportunity I get to tell that story. And I'm very blessed and thankful that you know, Detroit's been a home that's been receptive to that.
More can be found about this artist on social media at @fel3000ft or at fel3000ft.com.