Motor City Murals

Motor City Murals

Motor City Murals

Seeing Detroit’s street art from the seat of an Indian Scout Bobber.

WORDS Chris Nelson  IMAGES Andrew Trahan

Piles of ash smolder in the shadows of vacant buildings fled by big businesses before they went bust. Every day at sunset a somber dirge buzzes through tired speakers along Woodward Avenue. Criminals with insatiable bloodlust rove pothole-ridden streets until a shiny, silver cyborg with a badge puts them down. 

This is Detroit only in the most demented of dreams, apocalypse-porn that is not at all like the real thing. Sure, streets are crumbling and personal safety is a concern in some spots, but Detroit — now a downtrodden metropolis fading from its former glory as America’s Motor City — is doing its best to push forward, struggling as it searches for a new purpose.

Signs of revival are literally painted on the walls of Detroit’s countless abandoned buildings. A vibrant, underground street art culture that developed over decades has started to slip into the mainstream as traditional tags are dwarfed by big murals painted by artists from all corners of Earth. These murals are more approachable than the rattle-can throw-ups typical of graffiti art, and as such the people of Detroit are beginning to embrace what they once damned as rebellious and immoral.

We get glimpses of passing tags — some worn, some still wet — as we ride along the west bank of the Detroit River on the all-new Indian Scout Bobber, a “no-frills, all-attitude” version of Indian’s most charismatic motorcycle. It’s a tough, low-slung, murdered-out bike with stubby fenders, 16-inch wheels, and a 1130cc liquid-cooled V-twin that puts out 100 horsepower and puts down 73 lb-ft of torque — not too shabby for $11,500. It’s what we’ll be riding as we explore Detroit for a day and discover for ourselves why the city’s street art scene is flourishing.

“People can’t relate to graffiti because they can’t read it and don’t get it, so when you paint a person or something more readable…I don’t know, people just connect to it better,” says Dan Armand, chief creative officer for Detroit’s Murals in the Market, an annual festival that invites street artists from home and abroad to collaborate and create in one location. Armand started doing graffiti 15 years ago, illegally tagging until the night a Detroit police officer shot and killed his friend. Armand has since embraced the growing mural trend after seeing people’s reactions to the art. “It’s not looked at as tagging or anything like that, so I think it’s something people can appreciate. There are so many abandoned buildings in Detroit and they are so fucked up. People love to drive around and take pictures of those buildings, but if you put a mural on them, they’re going to take pictures of that mural and think less about how fucked up the building is and more about how beautiful the art is.”

Murals in the Market encouraged dozens of artists to cover the walls of Detroit’s Eastern Market — a hip, expansive food market where many of the city’s restaurateurs purchase their ingredients — and the result is astonishing: you can’t walk half a block without being stopped dead in your tracks by a striking piece of art. Many of the locals creating murals around Detroit don’t call themselves “street artists,” preferring to think of themselves as artists who create large-scale paintings that live in the open for all to see. Michelle Tanguay is one such artist. A full-time studio painter, Tanguay is petite and stupidly pretty, smiling wide as she tells us about the first mural she created in Eastern Market.

"You’re supposed to make comfort where there is chaos, and chaos where there is comfort."

“I started with a spray can, working next to [muralist] Patch Whisky, and halfway through he just looked at me, and I said, ‘Man, I’m totally fucking this up, trying to use spray paint.’ He pulled me aside and said, ‘Michelle, you’re a painter. You have to paint. Go get a broom and paint on this thing.’ So I got a big brush and painted the whole thing.”

Humble as can be, Tanguay tells us her favorite mural in the Market is Swan Song for the End of the Oil Age, an energetic depiction of a marching band living in a world without our addiction to oil, playing instruments crafted from repurposed machinery. 

“There’s a saying, ‘You’re supposed to make comfort where there is chaos, and chaos where there is comfort.’ How do you make a mural for all the people who have been here through hard times, but that also challenges people?” asks Pat Perry, the muralist of Swan Song, a tall, thin, tattooed, and openly transient fella who doesn’t like attention and absolutely adores his adopted city. “This represents the end of one thing and the start of something else. It has to. If it’s not going to, we’ll be in a worse situation. We’re burning fuel and riding around on these motorcycles and hopefully one day we’re not allowed to, because things are moving forward.”

A twinge of guilt washes over us when we leave Perry, wake up the Bobber’s V-twin, cinch down on its front brake lever, and roll the throttle until hot rubber pellets peel off the knobby rear tire and smack against the back of our jacket. We get flagged down by a local guy, dirty and disheveled but sweet. He loves the bike, says he’s lived here all his life, then points to one of his favorite street art pieces: a colorful dog with engorged mammary glands, supposedly inspired by a dog that lived in that building. “She was a German Shepherd. She was smart. A thoroughbred. Her paws were big. She kept her coat up and fed her kids. That’s what that picture is all about.” It’s a strange-but-enjoyable encounter that precedes a ride to the East Side to see The Heidelberg Project, which is an installation — not graffiti, but street art all the same. Thirty years ago, artist Tyree Guyton saw the road he grew up on, Heidelberg, becoming riddled with drugs and rotting from the inside, so he started transforming vacant lots and empty houses into sculptures, hoping that his community would redevelop by embracing art and culture as essential aspects of life.

Across sprawling metro Detroit, artworks like Heidelberg not-so-subtly address the issues most people would prefer to ignore. “We got into street art to eliminate the barriers that can sometimes exist within institutions, allowing us to reach broader audiences and reach the public directly, often times unsuspecting,” says a member of Hygienic Dress League, a group of creators constantly innovating their approach to street art. A thoughtful piece like Hygienic Dress League’s Money Hungry mural, which depicts two ram-headed individuals in suits holding stacks of hundreds on the ends of their forks, draws attention to societal inequality and the uneven distribution of wealth. It’s beautiful, but is it more impactful than a simple rattle-can statement that reads, “The drugs stopped working”? For better or worse, as Detroit’s street art scene shifts further toward mass appeal and artists tap new techniques and technologies to create contemporary styles, it’s harder to find the ostracized street tags that birthed this subculture. 

“All the industrial history, all these different things that made this a golden, shining city. What it represents now is completely different: the failure of a lot of different policies and world views coming to a head."

Still, there are spots that embrace tagging as an important vestige of Detroit culture. We roll up to one such place, Ride It Sculpture and Skate Park, and little kids run up to the Scout Bobber and take turns climbing onto its brown leather seat. An aspiring rapper asks if he can use the bike as a prop in his one-camera music video shoot, so we walk the 554-pound Indian into one of the park’s graffiti-covered bowls and let kids skate around it as we chat with Mitch Cope, founder of Powerhouse Productions, the non-profit neighborhood arts organization that built Ride It. “I don’t know where all these kids are from,” says Cope. “One day they just started painting, and now this is a place for people to safely paint and not get busted by the police. It’s an ongoing community mural; freedom for the public, freedom of expression. It’s not one artist; it’s a whole conglomeration of who comes here. Blue-chip artists combining with artists who are just from the neighborhood or the street — all walks of life, all levels and layers on an equal playing field.” 

Cope appreciates street art, but he and his team didn’t build Ride It as an artist asylum; they built it for Detroit’s hard-working, low-income families to enjoy. “Now kids in this neighborhood and other Detroit neighborhoods meet kids from more affluent neighborhoods and the suburbs,” says Cope. “It’s become this really amazing meeting spot for people.”

Detroit is an obvious incubator for street art, what with its disused buildings, but really it’s the people of Detroit that push local street artists to revitalize small chunks of their communities and beautify their city. “Detroit represented the American dream for all sorts of different people, especially being the center city for black home ownership — a cardinal city for that,” Perry says. “All the industrial history, all these different things that made this a golden, shining city. What it represents now is completely different: the failure of a lot of different policies and world views coming to a head. But people here have dealt with that for so long that now they’re looking past that. They are trying to see another way of life, not relying on the same foundations and institutions. There are important things going on here.” Tanguay adds, “The level of talent in Detroit, you just don’t really get that anywhere else. People aren’t trying to be somebody they aren’t here. They’re super genuine, they’re nice, and everybody wants everyone else to succeed. That’s the stuff that inspires me.”

At sunset we hear no dirge, only the bellowing of the Bobber’s exhaust as we ride by the bronze Fist monument to boxer Joe Lewis that is positioned proudly in downtown Detroit. This city won’t stop fighting. Detroit may be a shade of the roaring Motor City it once was, but maybe it should move on from manufacturing and embrace the residents who never left and refuse to give up. They’re the people who inspire a new school of street artists to advance an art form with deep, respected roots, who hope to help make a once-great city beautiful again.


This piece was proudly produced in partnership with Indian Motorcycles. 


Originally featured in Iron & Air Magazine Issue 029.





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