When we think of present-day Detroit, abandoned buildings as far as the eye can see is the image that comes to mind. It's no secret that the city has been having a hard time economically for several years now, despite its rich industrial history and many cultural contributions to the world. You can buy a home in Detroit for less than it would cost you to rent a place for a couple months in New York City, and as a result, young people have flocked to the city that is still struggling to be a shadow of its former self.
You won't find many people who are dying to move their to start businesses these days (though there are a brave few), but there is one subculture that seems to be thriving. Photographer Chris Freitag recently published a book with Schiffer Publishing titled Detroit Graffiti that includes hundreds of photos of the murals and tags that now cover much of the city's open surfaces. From abandoned buildings to commissioned walls, the amount of art that now covers Detroit has earned the Motor City a new nickname: "Spray City." Freitag's book enlists the help of several artists who contribute quotes about the current state of the culture in Detroit, and the photographer (and former writer) shares his own thoughts about the city as a whole and how its conditions have led to the growth of such a substantial art scene.
We spoke with Freitag about the book, and what began as a review turned into a full-fledged interview about Detroit Graffiti, the future of Detroit, and the artists who have transformed the landscape.
All images via Chris Freitag / Schiffer Publishing
How many photographs are included in Graffiti Detroit and how long did it take you to put it all together?
Growing up in Detroit gave me a chance to admire and appreciate the artwork along the freeways and side streets while going to baseball and hockey games as a kid in the 80’s, and starting to participate myself as a teenager in the 90’s. As an adult, I can remember wondering if there was a book about the graffiti in Detroit sometime around 2007. So I did my homework and turns out there wasn’t, and it disappointed me. I was disappointed enough to skip the pissing and moaning and just do something about it.
I took the first photo with the intention of creating a book of some kind in the spring of 2009. I had, however, taken a camera phone shot here and there during those years in between. I knew absolutely nothing about photography and as a result was taking some really awful pictures. I had to get my shit together pretty quick. So I just took more and more and more shots in different light from different angles. It took me the better part of a year to get caught up with the stuff that was already up and still running. By the time the project had progressed to the point where it was taking shape as a book, I had amassed somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,000 photos to sift through. Less than 1% of that made it into the final draft of the book. The final photo count is 500 plus.
How has the graffiti scene changed over the past 10-20 years?
There have been talented writers and artists in town doing their thing since the mid-to-late eighties. It’s been a steady evolution from that period right up through to the early-2000’s. A figured emerged, the Turdl. Turdl was everywhere, all over the city. He was also making news and catching attention of the city prosecutor, Mike Duggan, who took a harsh stance on graffiti. Fast-forward a few years, that was when this town exploded. Business had been declining in Detroit since it’s peak at some point in the 50’s. Businesses were folding and being replaced at a pace that was typical of any other industrial area in the country. When big auto fell apart and was reduced to begging on the White House lawn for bailouts, the whole auto supplier infrastructure collapsed. All the small businesses that supported the manufacture of automobiles went under. Couple that with a mass exodus of the population, leaving behind numerous apartments buildings and schools, sitting empty.
That adds up to a lot of defenseless structures. Once scrappers take out the windows, it only takes one winter to render that structure useless. The city bank accounts were being robbed blind by the Mayor and his administration at the time. Police and all other municipalities’ budgets were cut dangerously close to the bone. This left a city full of paintable space with no one left to care for it. Murder, rape, armed robbery, all of those crimes needed the attention of the remaining city resources. Long story short, the last 10 years have been pretty lawless when it comes to graffiti and other misdemeanor crimes in Detroit.
The current mayor, Mike Duggan, (yes the former prosecutor became mayor) is now cracking down on graffiti related crimes. He’s putting writers in jail, giving business owners whose buildings have graffiti stiff fines. At one point he was not even discerning between commissioned murals and illegal tags. His orders to the DPD black & whites were simply to hand out tickets. He has since back-tracked on the mural policy, and apologized for his overreaction. Nonetheless it demonstrated to the community that he meant business. The Detroit graffiti gravy train is far from stopping, but it has certainly slowed down.
Your book includes some artists who represent the graffiti world 100%, while others like Pose and Nychos dip in and out of the world of “street art.” Do the cultures coexist in the D, or is there tension between the traditionalists and the guys/girls who prefer to blur the lines?
I have occasionally heard cries of “go home.” And one well-known Detroit born artist declared Detroit as a #NoFlyZone for out-of-towners. This kind of bullshit talk results more from the territorial aspect rather than the style of art or the label that is put on it. It’s intimidating for some locals to have the best in the world come and ostensibly try to take their piece of the pie. The only recourse some have is to call foul. The more level-headed artists see this as opportunity. Who wouldn’t want to learn from the best? When guys like Pose, Nychos, Askew etc. come to town they always get a few street spots in addition to the work they were commissioned to do, and that’s cool. I especially keep my eyes and ears open during those periods to see what pops up. The pure street artists that are brought in to create a piece are usually not reaching out to local writers to find out what’s going on in the streets. There are so many spots available here that no one has a legitimate reason to get bent out of shape. There’s room at the trough for everybody. If things were to tighten down, I could see the situation getting a little more competitive and heated. A couple times in recent memory, guys from out of town have unknowingly gone over a dead writer’s spot. That causes tension for sure.
Is it rare to see a commissioned mural in Detroit?
Absolutely not. There are expansive and beautiful murals going up all the time. There are neighborhoods where commissioned pieces are more common than others, but murals are prevalent throughout Detroit. In the summer of 2012 Matt Eaton, along with several others, put together the Detroit Beautification Project that brought artists from all over the world to Detroit to paint murals. I think it was this period that helped to evolve the public’s perception of street art and mural art and how they are really one and the same.
As recently as November of last year, a very trendy chain bar moved into the blossoming neighborhood known as Midtown. 6 or 7 local graffiti artists were commissioned to cover the entire exterior and provide the main interior focal points with mural work. I think that is a good indication that graffiti disguised as murals are being embraced by the people and the private sector. Government is another matter. They are still fucking clueless as to how to handle art in this city.
Could you fill a book of Detroit Sticker or Detroit Wheatpaste photography, or do other mediums take a backseat to graffiti?
I suppose you could scrape a book of that nature together, but it wouldn’t be that diverse or impressive. Like any major city slaps, stickers and tagging are a given and can be found on nearly all public surfaces. There have been a few renowned wheatpaste artists that have been through Detroit and left some beautiful work. Swoon comes to mind. I have photos of some of her beautiful work as well as some others, but it really has yet to catch on.
Things change all the time. The current administration is taking a very harsh stance on graffiti. This is causing a lot of the most active writers to take pause rethink what they are doing with their art. I imagine if the current climate continues it may force artists to change to a quick hit style of art making, where all the prep work is done in a controlled environment. I guess the art will adapt to the environment. Until time becomes a major factor in the process, the status quo will continue.
I’d love for all of the Detroit graffiti artists to be able to cash-in with their talents and sell overpriced pieces to complacent high society collectors burdened with wealth.
A lot of the artists quoted in the book say that painting in Detroit is unlike any other place because of the freedom and ability to explore abandoned buildings for interesting spots. Have you had similar experiences as a photographer?
Definitely. The wide open spaces are very liberating. A lot of times it feels like you are out hiking in the woods. Large sections of this city are so empty, I can go hours without seeing a car or another human being. Sure it’s a dangerous situation, but if you’re playing the odds you’re usually fine. There are just no people. People with criminal intent or otherwise.
On the flip side, it does make it hard to find spots or reason out where a certain piece might have been painted. In other cities someone could tell you “Dude you should see this piece I painted in the abandoned warehouse with the tall tall fence.” And you’d probably know right where to go. In Detroit that tells you nothing. That information only narrows it down to 50 or 60 possible spots. This city is all the way down at number 65 of American cities ranked by total area. But it can be like finding a needle in a haystack. 140 square miles of an ever-changing wasteland can be daunting to explore. I’ve lived here my whole life and I’m sure there are spots I’ve never seen.
If you had to choose, would you take a resurrected Motor City or keep the Spray City just the way it is?
I’d have to answer that questions with a few caveats. I’d love to see Detroit come back fully and once again become the beautiful metropolitan area for my kids and grandkids that it was for my grandparents and great-grandparents. For that to happen the crumbling structures would have to be dealt with in a constructive manner. It would be cool if the beauty and culture that is currently on display in the decaying parts of the city could be displayed in galleries and art collectives that pop-up in their place. I’d love for all of the Detroit graffiti artists to be able to cash-in with their talents and sell overpriced pieces to complacent high society collectors burdened with wealth. That would take a concerted effort from those in city government. I’m smirking and holding back laughter as I say this, of course.
The best scenario anyone can hope for is to continue down the path we’re on. Put the city’s resources into projects that make a better city for people, and let the decaying areas continue to return to the earth. If a talented guy or girl decides they might want to make something beautiful out of the decay as it happens, so much the better. The idea that graffiti = beauty has already become the prevailing mindset, so it will continue to be a part of the renewal effort in a way that people of all walks of life can appreciate without rolling their eyes.