Graffiti for good: How muralists and businesses are joining forces to enliven Detroit

Ever since a bright blue mural featuring a black woman with a huge afro was painted on the side of the Craft Cafe Detroit this summer, people have been flocking to the art and sip shop on Mack Avenue near Alter Road.

They're googling the business, calling and stopping by, posing for photo shoots outside, booking parties and planning to host events there, says owner Candice Meeks.

"It's very eye-catching and it says, 'Let's create something beautiful.' People come here to create beautiful things, so it goes together and represents me," Meeks says of the striking mural created by celebrated local artist Michelle Tanguay. "Art is so therapeutic to me, and these murals are so eye catching with these bright colors; it puts you in a better mood. Even if it changes your mood for one moment. We need these positive murals around the city."

Roula David, coo at 1xRun and owner of Inner State Gallery

A mural by Michelle Tanguay

That's exactly what sponsors of the bevy of murals emerging around the city have in mind. The powerful, whimsical, and awe-inspiring pieces have transformed the city into an open-air art gallery, shining brightly from the top of downtown high-rise buildings, in the Eastern Market district, along the Dequindre Cut Greenway and in neighborhoods across the city.

The array of hues and tones are not only making Detroit a more colorful, beautiful place, they're stimulating business, connecting communities, and enhancing Detroit's reputation as a world-renowned art city drawing more artists who want to live and work here.

"Public art is so important; it benefits the community because Detroiters can see the beauty when they leave their homes and places of work," says Roula David, the chief operating officer for 1xRun, a publisher of fine art editions who has sponsored mural festivals around the world. "Detroit has become an artist community where the artists are getting more opportunities, commercial work and commissioned to paint murals. The art is beautifying communities in the city and supporting businesses."

Art enriching business

Often, when a new mural goes up around town, David's fingerprints are on it. In addition to her work with 1xRun, she's the owner of Eastern Market's Inner State Art Gallery and has worked with more than 1,000 artists internationally—at least 100 locally. David gets calls when people want a mural, need an artist, or want to collaborate.

This summer, her company partnered with Quicken Loans' Small Business Murals Project to install murals on the sides of six Detroit neighborhood businesses such as the Craft Café Detroit, Social Sushi on Livernois Avenue, and Cutz Lounge, a barbershop on Grand River Avenue. In late August, she collaborated with the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy for a Dequindre Cut mural. The striking black-and-white mural, "Dance Hall" was painted by W. C. Bevan, a Detroit-based artist.

David is also the executive festival director for the upcoming third annual Murals in the Market International Festival in Eastern Market, which runs Sept. 21 to 28. During the event, more than 50 murals will simultaneously be painted.
A mural outside the Butcher's Inn
"In Eastern Market, people are using these murals as a backdrop for their wedding photos, for their graduation photos, for really important passages for their life," David says. "Detroit is an art city; it's so creative with so many people here that have so many talents when it comes to creating art, creating murals, installations and sculptures. We are finding ways to highlight their talent to show who they are, what they're doing, and we're getting international attention for it."

That creativity attracted Tanguay, a native New Yorker, to Detroit. When she was 17, she first visited the city. When she returned, she planned to stay for a month, and never left.

She says she initially was inspired by Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project, with its polka-dotted houses on the city's east side, and because of it, knew Detroit was a place she wanted to call home. Now, at 29, she's been commissioned to produce murals downtown, in Eastern Market, in neighborhoods and paintings in metro Detroit restaurants.

"Companies are now realizing if you have a mural painted outside a store, you will get attention," she says. "Art has always facilitated change. In Detroit, with everything that's changing, people are realizing art has something to do with that."

Her work includes a series of ladies licking lollipops on Washington Blvd., which was commissioned by Red Bull in 2012. Then, she says, she was selfishly expressing her sexuality after being surrounded by beautiful women. Today, with her recently-completed mural featuring the woman with an afro on the Craft Café Detroit, she turned her attention to making statements about America's political climate.

Murals in the market

Tanguay also been commissioned to produce murals in Eastern Market, where she notes the art has made finding a parking space near her home more difficult.

"We see people walking around day and night," says Dan Carmody, president of the Eastern Market Corporation. "Throughout the year, they're taking photos and sharing on social media. It helps create stories about the market and we feel that brings people together."

Dan Carmody, president of the Eastern Market Corporation

Nourish pyramid mural

Carmody says murals are a long-standing tradition in the market dating back to the 1970s when city officials lacked resources to make the market aesthetically pleasing. Murals became the answer, covering the dusty, old sheds with bright, fun images of pigs and chickens.

"We're a district with a lot of industrial businesses that have a lot of blank walls and there's not much interest in them," he says. "The murals are a great way to make something interesting that isn't. When we first began the mural project, we were having a challenge with graffiti. Once the art goes up, taggers don't feel like defacing it. It makes the market feel more cared for and safer."

Besides stimulating business and traffic in the market, Carmody says the art is bringing together artists from around the world, pairing an equal split of local and international artists who paint up to 50 murals annually for the festival.

"We especially like our approach of pairing local artists with internationally-known street artists," he says. "We find it builds a lot of self-esteem among the Detroit artists because they teach the international artists as much as the international artists teach them."

A mural in Eastern Market

The project started three years ago with a $125,000 budget. With collaboration with 1xRun and support from the William Davidson Foundation, the Knight Foundation, and Quicken Loans, the budget is about $200,000 for the 2017 festival.

But Carmody says he's run into a challenge: The market has so many murals, it's lacking wall space. So, some of this year's murals will be painted over those completed in 2015. Eastern Market also commissioned six murals this summer near neighborhood farmer's markets across the city.

The multifaceted benefits of murals

Helen Davis Johnson, the vice president of Strategic Investments for Rock Ventures, the organization that serves and connects Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert to his family of more than 100 companies, investments, real estate purchases, and community activities, says Quicken Loans and the other companies are seeking similar ways to connect with Detroiters, artists and entrepreneurs.

She says the companies plan to continue commissioning murals around town and involving more than 150 team member volunteers who help paint murals.

"This is a way for us to honor local artists from Detroit, as well as to bring in internationally recognized artists," she says. "It creates a very interesting blend of diverse styles and approaches, and gives us a way to think about how to engage in space in a very different way. Public art has a multifaceted benefit."

Besides the Small Business Mural project in Detroit neighborhoods, the companies sponsored a mural by internationally-acclaimed artist Shepherd Fairey on the 15-story One Campus Martius building, several murals in the Z Garage and The Belt, an alleyway near Grand River Avenue and Broadway. They also partnered with the Library Street Collective for "Unity," a gripping 11-story black-and-white mural by legendary artist Charles McGee on the side of the 28 Grand River micro-loft building. She says they will scale even more in 2018.

"It's something we have really been committed to," she says. "We think Detroit has some of the strongest entrepreneurs and artists in the country and by pairing those two together is a great way to showcase their talent."

Undoubtedly, Detroit's talent is unmatched, says Mark Wallace, president & CEO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, the nonprofit that develops and manages the Riverfront and Dequindre Cut Greenway.

"Detroit crushes it," he says. "Our art is so much better. I don't want to start naming cities, but art in New York and Philadelphia is cute and very interesting, but Detroit is dripping with creativity and really amazing talent that expresses themselves on our buildings. It's a key part of reminding us what matters."

All photos by Nick Hagen.
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Read more articles by Kimberly Hayes Taylor.

Kimberly Hayes Taylor is national award-winning independent multimedia journalist whose written for newspapers such as The Detroit News, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and USA Today, and a former editor of BLAC Detroit Magazine.