Richie Blanko descended a concrete wall ornamented with fading flecks of color that once spelled his name.
As he had for years, Blanko stepped down a steep angle into the underpass between Rosa Parks and Lafayette Boulevard. The tunnel once served as an overgrown underground studio for aspiring artists and vandals.
The lore dates back to the early 1990s; legendary graffiti writer Justo first discovered the abandoned spot’s potential in one telling. Blanko frequented the underpass a decade later, skipping school with friends to marvel at an evolving concrete canvas. He’d spend the next decade adding to it himself.
“At that time, Detroit was the number one place for graffiti in the world,” Blanko said. “All of the world had their eyes on Detroit. The word got out that everything was abandoned, people had the idea that Detroit was a free space to come paint.”
Today, the canvas is finished. The painted underpass is now a graffiti conservation project curated by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. The Yard Graffiti Museum is within the recently-opened Southwest Greenway, a massive undertaking to connect Michigan Central Station to the Detroit River.
More than 50 identifiable pieces in the outdoor art gallery remain sealed beneath a protective coating. Other artworks are preserved only in memory. Longtime graffiti writers who talked with BridgeDetroit appreciate the recognition, but the development of an underground art space also conjures mixed emotions.
The yard is no longer theirs. That comes as a blow to graffiti writers who have few places left to put paint on walls without permission. Detroit is experiencing a renaissance of mural art funded by the city, nonprofit organizations and developers. But the illegal and clandestine nature of graffiti is a key part of its appeal.
“There’s a more open feel to graffiti as the roots of it are in vandalism and being anonymous,” said Beso, a longtime graffiti writer in Detroit. “Being on a commissioned wall, for me, is a hard take. I don’t want anyone to know who I am.”
The museum is also a memorial to Detroit graffiti masters like Jordan TEAD Vaughn, Gasm and Astro, who are outlived by their massive compositions. It’s complete with plaques naming the artists and a chain link barrier to keep wandering hands off. TEAD died in 2017 after falling through a roof while working on a mural.
The Yard Graffiti Museum is within the recently-opened Southwest Greenway. The outdoor art gallery includes more than 50 identifiable pieces. (Photos by Quinn Banks)
“They say people die twice, you know, once when they leave the world and the next time is when people stop saying their names,” said Jenny Vaughn, TEAD’s mother and founder of an artist residency program bearing his name.
“Jordan sprinkled it around like seasoning all over the place. He left a lot of his work out there to say hello to people. It just means so much that the community has gotten behind this and respects his work enough to not write over it.”
Visitors won’t need to vault down concrete to see the art. Entrances to the 0.8-mile paved path are easily accessible on Jefferson Avenue and Bagley Street. The modernized greenway is smooth, well lit, includes a playground and will soon have public Wi-Fi.
Blight and spray paint have a long association in Detroit. The excesses of the era brought a major criminal crackdown that left some artists with felony records. Artists featured in the greenway museum like Sew40 were charged during what writers call the “war on graffiti.” Blanko has three friends who each spent a year behind bars.
“With the greenway acknowledging graffiti in a different way, it shines a little light of hope that we can move differently in the future,” Blanko said. “At the same time, it sucks, because they came so hard at us. They were kicking down doors over graffiti. They were raiding people’s houses over graffiti.”
Artists say their work, while illegal, was an attempt to bring beauty to crumbling eyesores. Some even argue that graffiti brought attention to sites that contributed to the city’s redevelopment.
“Back in the 2000s, Detroit had (tens of thousands) of abandoned homes and nobody was doing a damn thing about it,” said Matthew Naimi, a Detroit artist, Recycle Here owner and developer. “The local community started doing illegal graffiti on these structures. The world took notice and graffiti writers from all over came here to do graffiti on our abandoned properties. The city took notice of graffiti and vandalism on dilapidated buildings, cracked down on it and then started removing the homes.
“What started the cleanup of Detroit?”
Beso said motivations vary for graffiti writers, which makes it difficult to talk about the group as a whole. Some were creating art, he said, but others weren’t.
“There’s the guy who literally carries a marker in his pocket and wants to write on every single thing he sees, from a stop sign to the bumper of your car,” Beso said. “When I was 13, I thought maybe that was cool. Looking back, I’m like, ‘why would I have done that to somebody’s property?’”
Jessica Parker, deputy chief operations officer for the mayor’s office, said Detroiters in neighborhoods repeatedly plagued by obscenities and gang signs on blighted buildings celebrated efforts to remove paint, board up windows and clean abandoned sites. One business owner described repeatedly cleaning off graffiti tags as an “uphill battle.” Parker said Detroit was being treated “like a dumping ground.”
“We already knew (about the abandoned sites), they just added to the blight,” Parker said.
Rachel Frierson, director of programs and public spaces for the Riverfront Conservancy, said the Graffiti Museum was created in collaboration with artists like Blanko and chroniclers of the city’s underground.
“We saw this opportunity after seeing some of TEAD’s work down there and other folks, and we said ‘this would be interesting to try and hold on to,’” Frierson said. “And start this conversation of ‘is this art, is this graffiti?’ As I’ve gotten to know this community, I want to make sure their voices are heard.”
Frierson hopes the Riverfront Conservancy’s efforts to preserve art on the Southwest Greenway and Dequindre Cut will inspire other property owners to recognize the cultural value of graffiti.
“This is painstaking work, if you look at the intricacies of the layering and 3D aspects, you realize this isn’t something someone spray painted in 10 seconds,” Frierson said. “There’s so much meaning behind it. We tend to look past it. It’s art we don’t understand in the same way.”
Former graffiti writers have built careers out of commissioned mural work, though others stand by the rebellious nature of graffiti art. The community has also persevered through art festivals and public graffiti venues like the Lincoln Street Art Park in the Elijah McCoy neighborhood and Humboldt Forest in Core City.
Megan O., also known as attng3r, is a Detroit journalist, zine author and graffiti historian who worked with the Riverfront Conservancy to identify pieces. She said the museum is a good start, but comes years too late. Much of the graffiti that contributed to Detroit’s national perception as a haven for street art has been erased.
“I feel like in the past, there hasn’t been anyone that has looked into learning about graffiti as part of Detroit’s culture,” she said. “There’s a lot of talent that gets overlooked.”
A brief history of illegal graffiti
Rick Malt grew up in Detroit with skateboards and paint cans in the mid-90s. He practiced at the underpass, known then as Rosa Parks.
“It was a chill spot to take your time and really work on your letters and adding colors,” Malt said.
His graffiti roots evolved into a career as a professional muralist. It’s easy to find his distinctive murals, often featuring bird-like shapes gazing at the viewer, on walls scattered across the city.
Beso has been painting since he was 10 years old. He also treated the yard as a classroom to hone his style. His graffiti writer pseudonym – Spanish for “kiss” – was bestowed by a friend who used to paint there with him.
“He was like, ‘we’re gonna call you Beso, because you’re always chasing the girls,’” Beso said. My art always had a heart. It was a shape I could draw. So it ended up sticking with me, and that’s been my nickname, my graffiti name, my family name, for 30 years now.”
Beso and Malt said graffiti is rooted in vandalism and anonymity, but they also held themselves to a standard of respect.
“Although there wasn’t a set of rules, there was a set of rules,” Beso said.
“They would say, ‘only on abandoned buildings. Don’t dare paint on someone’s house, even an abandoned house. Don’t paint on churches. Don’t paint on operating businesses, because that’s somebody’s livelihood, and you’re going to take money out of their pocket,’” he said.
Beso was also taught how to evade the police, though he ended up on friendly terms with officers who repeatedly caught him wandering abandoned factories and decaying landmarks.
“To say the Detroit police hated graffiti is wrong,” Beso said. “They would sit for hours in their cars, bring their lunches and watch us paint new murals.”
For today’s artists, the world before smartphones may as well be the Stone Age. Back then, Malt said artists basically communicated through cave paintings. That’s how he met Fel3000ft, a graffiti “King” writer-turned mural master.
“This was pre-internet; I would see his pieces down there and write ‘yo what up’ or whatever and then he’d leave me a message,” Malt said. “We were kinda doing text messages on the walls.
“It was a different time. We took photos and went to CVS, or wherever, had them developed and traded them.”
Writers were plastering art on abandoned sites like the Dequindre Cut, then known as the graveyard, Cadillac Stamping Plant, Michigan Central Station and Eastern Market. Detroit became an international destination for graffiti artists.
“It was crazy for a minute but I personally loved it,” Malt said. “It was great seeing all these writers from all around the world coming here, artists that I admired for years and I can go look at their piece up close in person. You can dissect it, see how they painted a certain line.”
With the influx and notoriety peaking by the 2010s, self-enforced rules started to slide by the wayside.
“There was a respect, and I think it lasted for quite a few years,” Beso said. “As the later 2000s came, that’s when it went total chaos.”
Detroit’s war on graffiti
As Wayne County prosecutor, Mike Duggan waged a highly publicized anti-graffiti crusade that continued through his tenure as mayor. The free-for-all came to a screeching halt.
While prosecutor, Duggan compared graffiti artists to a “dog marking its territory and urinating on fire hydrants” in 2003. Duggan left the prosecutor’s office a year later and ran for mayor in 2013, where he has served for nearly a decade.
Duggan took a zero tolerance approach to graffiti as part of a larger campaign against blight. Thousands of blight tickets were issued and dozens of graffiti writers were charged with malicious destruction of property over the last decade.
Duggan was unavailable to comment for this story. Parker said the city was focused on making sure Detroit “is not blighted with unsanctioned art.”
“A lot of the graffiti and the vandalism of property was (by) artists who weren’t even local,” Parker said. “We didn’t want folks feeling like they could come to Detroit and deface our buildings.”
Beso said the mayor was right to try and reign in a graffiti culture that had “got out of hand,” though the penalties were too extreme.
“It was just everywhere, it was even a blight to me and I love graffiti,” Beso said. “There was a bunch of young guys from around the metro Detroit area who wanted to become famous and a lot of guys from out of state that knew Detroit was a rundown area and they would come and destroy our city.”
Another artist asked to be identified only as Mark due to concerns that his name would be connected to graffiti pieces and attract police attention. Mark said he learned how to read the intricate lettering graffiti writers use to spell their names by replicating the works on a piece of paper for days.
“We used to be able to pull up to a building on a Sunday, find an empty wall and do something cool,” Mark said. “We hurt nobody. The underground boom of it is what got the mainstream to come.”
Some artists balked at the idea of government entities deciding what qualifies as art.
“Art is subjective, but when you don’t understand the history behind a particular technique or style you’re never really going to grasp the impact that it has,” said Sasha Corder, director of development for the nonprofit arts foundation Make Art Work.
Corder said the crackdown caused a Detroit graffiti artist known as Dora to lose custody of her children. Corder said Dora was charged and served time in jail. She is memorialized on an interior wall of a warehouse at the Lincoln Street Art Park alongside other graffiti artists.
“Each of these panels was done by graffiti artists in the area who have been personally affected by the war on blight, whether it be jail time, probation, loss of jobs or monetary income,” Corder said. “We wanted to give them a platform to do their art openly, without stipulation. It’s our homage to keeping the culture alive in our area.”
The panels aren’t visible from outside, which is intentional. Detroit’s Code of Ordinances defines graffiti as unauthorized drawings and lettering “intended to deface or mark the appearance” of the exterior of a structure.
The city’s codes affirm a “significant governmental interest in protecting its aesthetic values” and mitigating “visual blight.” The city allocated $2.4 million in its latest budget to continue clean up commercial corridors, which includes funding for graffiti removal.
Parker said code enforcement officers still issue blight tickets if property owners refuse to clean up graffiti “that is defacing the property.” Property owners who commission their own murals must register them with the city, or face a potential code violation, though Parker said the city issues tickets as a last resort.
“It’s not that the city or mayor is against public art, (but) it has to be sanctioned,” Parker said.
Detroit launched the City Walls program in 2017, which hired area artists to replace illegal graffiti with approved art installations. A Detroit Public Art Fund is supported by the city’s General Fund and a portion of sign and advertising fees. More than 150 murals have been created since.
“We’re at the point now where we’ve removed a lot of the graffiti,” Parker said. “We had to clean it up before we can introduce the murals you’re seeing today.”
In some cases, muralists were issued blight tickets while creating commissioned art pieces. Sheefy McFly was mistakenly arrested in 2019 while creating a mural on a viaduct near Seven Mile and John R that was commissioned by the city. The finished work includes a statement in paint: “This ain’t graffiti, this is art!”
Jamon Jordan, the city’s first official historian, said Detroit remains in a “conflict point” when it comes to deciding what qualifies as art or blight.
“There are people who still consider graffiti as defacing property and on the other end it’s art,” Jordan said. “Detroit has this history of graffiti. Everybody knows that New York has this history. It’s a major part of hip hop history, but Detroit also has this street art history. I know it’s not all going to be preserved, but it’s important to find a way to honor that history in the right way.”
The largest Black-led real estate development in Detroit is protecting graffiti at the former Fisher Body Plant. A community benefits agreement negotiated with residents included an agreement to preserve existing graffiti in parts of the building.
Developer Richard Hosey said the entire building has been digitally scanned. The development team will work with the community to identify important pieces. Hosey said developers who take ownership of abandoned sites have a responsibility to do right by the neighboring community, but not necessarily a responsibility to retain graffiti.
“To the extent that the developer feels a responsibility to engage the community, then I think the art and graffiti that the community appreciates will be respected,” Hosey said.
Mark said he doesn’t believe property owners should feel responsible for preserving graffiti.
“Graffiti is fleeting, it’s not meant to be permanent,” he said.
Murals art renaissance
Detroit’s street art community is thriving. The city launched a mural mapping project last year to document a growing list of 500 murals.
The BLKOUT Walls Mural Festival recently wrapped up a week-long arts jam that added around 25 pieces to the North End and other neighborhoods between Highland Park and Midtown. It was created by lifelong Detroiter Sydney James to support Black artists who struggled to find inclusion in art events.
September will feature another mural festival in the Islandview neighborhood that grew out of the popular Murals in the Market festival in Eastern Market.
Corporate entities have also embraced the value of street art as they reshape public spaces. Bedrock commissioned a colorful mural to a parking deck near the east riverfront as part of streetscape enhancements near Robert C. Valade Park. The multi-level art wall is an homage to the late Gilda Snowden, a beloved Detroit artist and professor at the College for Creative Studies.
Megan, the graffiti historian, said there’s a direct link between the current excitement around street murals and the illegal art of the past 30 years.
“I used to go down to the Murals in the Market and you would hear people that attend say things like ‘oh my god, I really love this mural, but I really hate the stuff that’s tagged on the street,’” she said. “What those people don’t realize is the people that tag on the street are the same people that you’re watching right now doing the mural.”
There are more opportunities for commissioned street art, and some former graffiti writers like Malt and Freddy Diaz are keeping busy. But others feel they’ve been left out. Blanko said he’s applied for at least 30 mural jobs over the last three years, and hasn’t been selected for one. He said city regulations discourage letters in murals.
“A lot of writers feel this way in the city, that we cannot apply to mural projects where we’re just trying to paint our names,” Blanko said. “Our whole art form revolves around us writing our names. We essentially have to get rid of our identity in order to fit into what’s going on.”
Parker said a mural can also qualify as an advertisement if it includes the business name or other commercial messages. In that case, property owners need to receive a signage permit, which carries additional costs.
“We’re not going to tell the business owner what they can and cannot do as far as advertisement or art but there is a process in place to guide them so that they don’t get ticketed,” Parker said. “If the business owner says (they) don’t want to go that extra step, then that’s on them.”
Parker said muralists have been allowed to put messages on their pieces and sign their names. However, Corder said city ordinances are a barrier for graffiti artists who may be approached by private businesses or property owners to create art.
“If you have any lettering in it, whether it correlates to a brand or correlates to an artist, you have to go through the city channels and get a signage permit,” Corder said. “It really hinders a lot of business owners who want to support graffiti artists, because that’s an extra cost to the project.”
Malt said some artists draw a clear line between murals and graffiti, and personal preference prevents them from crossing over to approved projects.
“There’s some people that are just hardcore graffiti writers and they’re content with that,” Malt said.
That would describe Beso, who is driven by the freedom of self-expression.
“I personally have a hard time getting paid for art,” Beso said. “Honestly, it gives me creative block. The moment someone offers me money, my head shuts down.”
Mark said he would like to see more open spaces for graffiti artists to work freely. But he also said finding the perfect place to put graffiti is part of the art form.
“What defines graffiti is being done illegally, not having permission is graffiti,” Mark said. “The illegality is a part of the art, the hunting of the spot. The choice in spots, being like I’m going to climb on this hidden spot, there’s an appreciation there for me. The thought that goes into the spot before it gets painted is part of it, incorporating nature is part of it.”
Corder, who works with Naimi to bring graffiti artists in to paint at the Lincoln Street warehouse, said a younger generation of muralists are inspired by graffiti writers who haven’t received enough mainstream recognition.
“What they do is in the shadows, behind closed doors or in warehouses,” Corder said. “We are here to support them. We have resources for them and you can be loud and proud about your art. It’s not something that should be hidden behind secret walls.”