It stands to reason that a place called the Motor City would showcase some of its most powerful large-scale artwork at street level.
In this auto-centric area, you don’t have to park your car to see breathtaking beauty. It’s available — free of admission — on buildings, down alleyways and from 55 miles per hour.
All of this outdoor art is possible in part because of the massive canvas potential that comes from Detroit’s changing landscape. “People are reclaiming empty spaces,” said Vince Carducci, dean of undergraduate studies at the College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit. “Detroit has always had a maker ethos. Artists are entrepreneurial, and they’re taking what’s perceived to be negative and turning it to a positive.”
That’s precisely what has occurred over the past few years on gritty Grand River Avenue between Rosa Parks Boulevard and Warren Avenue. In 2012, real estate executive Derek Weaver read a disparaging story about the area around his 4731 arts incubator, calling it depressing. He thought it was an unfair portrayal and decided to combat that impression by commissioning graffiti artists (and getting permission from local businesses) to create the Grand River Creative Corridor. Now, nearly 100 murals and a fine arts outdoor gallery brighten the previously unremarkable stretch of land, transforming it into a legitimate tourist attraction.
Kim Rusinow is one of several Detroit tour operators to include the corridor on their regular routes around town. The cofounder of Show Me Detroit Tours said, “Derek has been teaching me to read graffiti so I can explain the symbolism in these magnificent murals.”
Works by the artist known as Malt, for example, who is featured prominently in the Grand River Creative Coordinator as well as in locations across the region, are recognizable by his forest scenes featuring birds and the juxtaposition of growth and decay — similar to a phoenix rising from the ashes.
Rusinow is also quick to tell her touring groups that the artwork isn’t vandalism — as is sometimes the first reaction to spray paint — but is done with permission from local business owners and is in fact deterring local taggers from scrawling their initials on buildings because they respect the “canvas.”
“One goal was to engage the creative community to take ownership of this area,” said Weaver, citing a sharp decline in territorial graffiti and vandalism since the project took hold. “Change has to start somewhere, and we start with art.”
He’s not the only one. Property owners across the city are collaborating with street artists. When the venerable Grand Rapids pub HopCat came to town, founder and owner Mark Sellers worked with Weaver to commission soaring murals on every exterior wall, including Malt’s 1,500-square-foot, steely-eyed bird taking flight over the parking lot.
“I think street art has a huge impact on Detroit,” said Malt, a Michigan native who has been invited to paint walls in locations across the globe, from Miami to Amsterdam. He said the artists he meets abroad are just as eager to visit his hometown. “Over the last four or five years, I’ve seen the art scene grow tremendously. It’s made Detroit a destination — not only to paint here but to see what the city has to offer.”
Murals and Building Art in Detroit
You have already read about the recent impact of street art taking place in Detroit, now check out the street artists and where you can find their work in Detroit!
One Campus Martius
Famed street artist Shepard Fairey recently painted his largest mural to date on the side of downtown Detroit’s One Campus Martius. It took more than 300 cans of spray paint to finish the 185-foot mural.
The Heidelberg Project
Drawing 275,000 visitors annually, The Heidelberg Project is artist Tyree Guyton’s urban ode to diversity, discussion and taking action. “Medicine for the community,” he has said. Spanning two city blocks on the lower east side, the art installation has been heralded as Detroit’s Ghetto Guggenheim and was recently awarded the No. 4 spot in the USA Today’s 10Best Readers’ Choice survey for Best Art District.
How & Nosm
How & Nosm were commissioned by billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert for what could end up being the world’s tallest mural — 354 feet high and 80 feet wide — on the side of his First National Building downtown. How & Nosm is the name used by brothers Raoul and Davide Perre, identical twins from Spain who achieved fame in New York City and whose work can also be seen in Gilbert’s Z parking garage.
The Z Parking Garage
It’s called the Z because it zigzags the corners of Broadway and East Grand River, and Library and Gratiot. The garage takes parking to the next level, thanks in part to The Belt, an alley art gallery between its two wings that features a rotating crop of pop-up exhibits. A collaboration between Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate Services and the Library Street Collective gallery, the team also brought in mural artists from as far away as Australia, Greece, Mexico, Ukraine and Switzerland to leave their permanent mark inside this artists’ United Nations of parking structures — and create something worthy of a special trip.
Rusinow said Show Me Detroit Tours has been known to pay the short-term parking fee for the sole purpose of driving groups through the 10-floor structure and then exiting without ever pulling into a spot.
She recommends a similar approach to the Detroit People Mover. Even when visitors don’t have a reason to travel the 2.9-mile loop of this elevated light-rail system, she said the journey is well worth the 75-cent toll. The People Mover’s renowned Art in the Stations is a $2 million collection of 13 mixed-media displays featuring everything from Pewabic Pottery and Venetian glass to bronze and neon.
Dequindre Cut Greenway
Along those same lines is the Dequindre Cut Greenway, a 1.35-mile railroad-turned-recreational path that links the riverfront to Eastern Market below street level. The paved path — with divided lanes for bike and foot traffic — is lined with murals, including the 15- by 100-foot Nature’s Wrath by Malt. In spring through fall, high-quality reproductions of masterpieces can be seen alongside the urban art — as well as in locations across the metro area — through the Detroit Institute of Arts’ (DIA) Inside|Out program.
Across town in southwest Detroit, Mexican-themed murals and tile mosaics — many on Bagley Street — celebrate culture in colorful fashion. A number of the area’s outdoor art expressions, including the signature cornfield mural at Bagley and St. Anne streets, are the handiwork of Vito Valdez, a former Detroit autoworker. Valdez now works with the DIA as a studio instructor teaching youth and would-be artists the positive impact street art can have on the revitalization of a community.
Perhaps inspired by this area’s long-established beauty, several other initiatives have also recently been launched to reclaim previously vandalized property and provide outreach opportunities to local youth.
The Alley Project
The Alley Project transformed a neighborhood alley and surrounding vacant lots into an inspirational graffiti art gallery with partners Young Nation and the Detroit Collaborative Design Center. Meanwhile, the Southwest Urban Arts Mural Project (SUAMP) in nearby Springwells Village, the heart of which is at the intersection of Springwells Street and Vernor Highway, focuses on the transformative power of hiring creative young people to reduce the blight around them.
Local businesses such as DTE Energy and Fresh-Pak commission murals to advertise or brighten up their buildings. Then neighborhood artists ranging in age from 14 to 23 earn an hourly wage for everything from writing business plans to designing murals to actually spraying and brushing the paint on the walls. During summer break, the artists work in teams to complete murals that extend over their heads and stretch a couple hundred feet down the street. They finish each piece with anti-graffiti sealant, but Christine Bell, who is the human development director for the SUAMP parent company, Urban Neighborhood Initiatives, said that would-be vandals respect the kids’ work. The result is one of Detroit’s densest collections of public murals. And also a way to engage kids creatively, allowing them to earn money for something they love doing.
CCS’ Carducci said that nurturing the next generation of artists is key to the continued beautification of the city — in a way that is uniquely Detroit. “You couldn’t do this anywhere else,” he said of the current street art scene. “There’s no other city with the footprint, the open space and the heritage that Detroit offers.”
John Sauve’s Man in the City
Play I Spy as you make your way around town. John Sauve’s Man in the City project puts a spotlight on public art education. You can spot some 30 orange men peering on rooftops around the city. A top few locations:
- The Park Shelton, Midtown on Kirby Street
- Detroit Opera House, downtown on Broadway Street
- The Majestic Theatre, downtown on Woodward Avenue
- The Old Shillelagh, near Greektown on Monroe Avenue
- Supino Pizzeria, Eastern Market on Russell Street
Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust
African bead curator and historian Olayami Dabls has covered an abandoned building with a kaleidoscope of beads and mirrors, and has established an outdoor found-object art exhibit called Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust — a metaphor for one culture imposing itself on another.
Packard Automotive Plant
In 2010, a painting was discovered among the rubble at Detroit’s abandoned Packard Automotive Plant. Rumor had it that the stencil of a boy holding a can of red paint next to the words, “I remember when all this was trees” was the work of Banksy, the infamous British graffiti artist. The 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios in southwest Detroit moved the cinder block wall to its space to preserve it. The mural was scheduled for auction by California-based Julien’s Auctions in September 2015.
Other Outdoor Art
Vince Carducci, dean of undergraduate studies at the College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit, said the dozens of public sculptures, memorials and fountains installed across Detroit are not to be missed. CCS’s Midtown campus, in fact, is one of the city’s more intriguing outdoor art arenas, with its own sculpture garden decorated with donated works from the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Campus Martius Park & the Fist
In Campus Martius Park, The Michigan Soldiers and Sailors Monument is one of America’s first Civil War memorials and among the oldest examples of public art in the city, constructed of bronze and granite in 1867. Not far from that, at Woodward and Jefferson avenues, are the one-two punch of The Fist and The Spirit of Detroit. Formerly titled Memorial to Joe Louis, the larger-than-life replica of the world heavyweight boxing champion’s outstretched arm has been a popular landmark since it was installed in 1986.
The Spirit of Detroit
Just as powerful is The Spirit of Detroit, the 16-foot bronze with patina sculpture of a godlike man that guards the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. Not only does The Spirit of Detroit serve as Detroit’s official logo, the statue itself embodies the city’s spirit when one of its sport teams is in the playoffs, appropriately outfitted with a giant version of that team’s jersey.
If you’re intrigued by the abstract, City Sculpture on West Alexandrine Street in Midtown just opened this past summer. This new art park features large-scale permanent sculptures as well as rotating pieces. If you’re looking for a more established staple in the outdoor art department — and are willing to trek outside the city — head to the expansive Cranbrook educational campus in Bloomfield Hills. Statues of everything imaginable from mythical creatures, boars and bulls to running horses, sleeping fawns and military-style cannons are sprinkled all over the grounds. Search out the Orpheus Fountain near the art museum. It’s a Carl Milles’ stunner featuring nine slight, ethereal bronze figures in delicate poses.
More to See, More to Love
- Look to the right when passing the Russell Industrial Center on 1-75 North between East Grand Boulevard and Clay Street to see artist Kobie Solomon’s Detroit Chimera mural
- Detroit artist Jerome Ferretti painted one of the murals at Mercury Burger Bar in Corktown and at Whole Foods in Midtown
- Eatery Brooklyn St. Local in Corktown hired the artist commonly known as Reyes to create its abstract building wall art
Tours: You Gotta Have Art
- MI Art Tours is a Michigan art tour app created by Venturit Inc. and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs
- Wheelhouse Detroit and Show Me Detroit Tours offer public art tours
- Book a Detroit Street Art tour with The Detroit Bus Co. and take a ride on a bus painted by local artists.
- College for Creative Studies
201 E. Kirby St., Detroit, MI 48202313-664-7400 Highlight on map | More Details
- Show Me Detroit Tours
, Detroit, 313-444-2120 Highlight on map | More Details
- Eastern Market
Russell Street between Mack Avenue and Gratiot Avenue, 2934 Russell St., Detroit, MI 48207313-833-9300 Highlight on map | More Details
- Campus Martius Park
800 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48226313-962-0101 Highlight on map | More Details
- Mercury Burger & Bar
2163 Michigan Ave., Detroit, MI 48216313-964-5000 Highlight on map | More Details
- Cranbrook Educational Community
39221 Woodward Ave, Bloomfield Hills, MI 48303248 645-3300 Highlight on map | More Details
- Heidelberg Project
- The Z Parking
219 Gratiot Ave, Detroit, MI 48226, United States Highlight on map
- Springwells Village, A Southwest Detroit Neighborhood
8300 Longworth St, Detroit, MI 48209, United States313-451-8380 Highlight on map