Story by Katie Susko | Photos by Illuminated mural by Julie Friedman
Murals, sculptures, architecture, fountains. Public art is what shows the true identity of a city. It can encapsulate the rich history and describe the current culture of the area it resides in.
Detroit’s public art has captured the attention of visitors from all over the world. Here are some of our favorites that you need to see while you’re in Detroit.
Public Art in Detroit
1. The Fisher Building
The Fisher Building in New Center is considered Detroit’s largest art object, and for good reason. Designed by famed architect Albert Kahn, the building was made almost entirely out of marble and granite. The top of the Fisher was originally covered in gold-leaf tiles when it was built in the 1920s. However, during World War II, it was feared that the building would become the target of bombings, so the gold was covered up with asphalt.
Photo by Jason Vaughn
2. Stevie Wonder mural
One of the newer murals in downtown Detroit, the Stevie Wonder mural was painted by London-based artist Richard Wilson. It’s located on the back wall of Detroit’s Music Hall Center, and right above another well known postcard mural. It was finished around the same time as Motown Record’s 60th anniversary–perfect timing to commemorate a Motown icon!
Belle Isle‘s beautiful fountain is a sight to behold. Adorned with dolphins, turtles and lions, this fountain was created as a monument to controversial socialite James Scott (there is even a life-size statue of him nearby overlooking the fountain). It’s close to Sunset Point, so a stop at this fountain also gives you the best chance to see Detroit’s skyline. The fountain typically only runs water during the summer.
Every year in the early fall, artists from all over the world descend on Detroit to paint new murals in Eastern Market. This has resulted in this 100+ year old public market being covered in beautiful artwork everywhere you turn. We can’t even pick a favorite to note here. Just set aside a few hours and wind your way through the market and its outer buildings to see why Eastern Market is so cherished.
The Guardian Building in downtown Detroit is an art deco masterpiece covered in orange brick on the outside, but a quick peek inside reveals something even better. The lobby has a three-story vaulted ceiling covered in an Aztec design made of Pewabic tiles and Rookwood pottery, and there is also Belgian black marble, Italian Travertine marble, and African Numidian marble in the columns and on the stairs. Plus there is a beautiful mural of Michigan near the back of the lobby. The building has previously been called the Cathedral of Finance.
Guardian Building lobby by Bill Bowen
6. United We Stand sculpture
This sculpture is located in front of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Created by artist Charles McGee, the mural commemorates the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit riots. The sculpture represents the artist’s three values – togetherness, unity and balance.
United We Stand sculpture by Michelle and Chris Gerard
7. MBAD African Bead Museum
The MBAD African Bead Museum and surrounding art installations were started by visual storyteller Olayami Dabls. He started the African Bead Museum as a way for his community to understand African heritage. The African Bead Gallery is surrounded by 18 outdoor art installations consisting of wood, iron, rock and mirrors, and addressing the human condition.
One of Detroit’s most famous pieces of public art, the Joe Louis fist statue is located right near the Detroit riverfront on Jefferson Avenue. It was a gift from Sports Illustrated magazine to the city commemorating the fight between Joe Louis and German boxer Max Schmeling, which was a huge moral victory for the U.S. in the years leading up to World War II.
Joe Louis fist by Vito Palmisano
9. The Belt
The Belt has quickly become one of Detroit’s favorite gathering spots. Covered in murals from international artists, the alley is a great example of the desire to reimagine underutilized spaces in Detroit. The Belt is also home to a bar, a restaurant, a nightclub and an art gallery. Be sure to visit all ten levels of the parking garage next door (the Z Lot). There is a different mural on each level, and great city views from the top.
The Belt; photo courtesy of Bedrock Detroit
10. Illuminated Mural
Located near Detroit’s New Center, the Illuminated Mural is 125 feet tall and located on the side of an Albert Kahn-designed building. Artist Katie Craig is currently working to repair the rainbow mural after it was damaged during construction.
The Illuminated Mural, photo by Julie Fiedman
11. Mural at Plaza del Norte Welcome Center
Muralist Elton Monroy Durán is well known in Southwest Detroit, for he has painted murals all around this neighborhood. One of his most popular murals is on the side of the Plaza del Norte Welcome Center. It’s a celebration of Mexican culture – covered in depictions of Mexican cinema icons dancing in the streets with current residents standing aside watching the fun.
Although it’s technically not out in public, Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts is a must-see for anyone visiting Detroit.