Part one of a series on Detroit’s graffiti: history and environment
Like most U.S. cities, both large and small, Detroit has its share of stunning street art. The art, known as graffiti, can be found everywhere throughout this vast city. On my two-wheeled travels across this old, worn out town, I’ve spotted it on every imaginable surface including the pavement I’ve ridden on. It’s under bridge overpasses, on the interior and exterior of abandoned factories as well as vacant retail storefronts. Active graffiti “writers” have used the flat, long walls of abandoned, boarded up school buildings and tall warehouses along railroad tracks as prime palettes for their remarkable pieces. I’ve also seen it on houses; trucks, stop signs, railroad boxcars and even on the rails the cars ride upon. Almost no surface in Detroit is immune to a writer’s spray can.
The variety and high quality of the pieces I’ve seen while biking in Detroit is incredible. There are distinct messages, monstrous looking characters, highly stylized names and masterpieces that appear to be three-dimensional in magnitude… way too much to cover in one blog entry. Since there are so many wall-writing styles represented and writers that have left their mark within the city limits, I’ve decided to post a series of “theme driven” entries exploring the multi-faceted graffiti art found in Detroit.
In this entry, the first in a series, I’ve provided a brief history of modern graffiti and showcased – through a series of photos – the environment in Detroit where much of it can be found.
Graffiti has a long history in the United States, dating back to the 1920s. At that time a mythical symbol named “Bozo Texino” started appearing on railroad boxcars that wound their way across the country. This simple drawing, which can be spotted on railroad cars even today, has become synonymous with “hobo graffiti”. Then along came WWII, and the phrase “Kilroy Was Here” suddenly appeared. It was accompanied by a distinct drawing, and it was spread around the world by American troops. The design was very influential, and many graffiti writers use a similar version today.
Modern, urban graffiti got its start in Philadelphia in 1967 by a street artist known as “Cornbread”, considered by many to be the “father of modern graffiti.” He “bombed” (to quickly and simply paint many surfaces in an area) the city with his stylized initials to gain the attention of a girl he liked. It’s unclear if he impressed the girl, but his efforts caught the eyes of the local media, and his work and fame spread to other American cities where budding graffiti artists began to emulate him.
New York City in particular became a hot bed of writers shortly after Cornbread’s work appeared. This was because of the subway system and its vast reach across the city, which exposed their colorful work to millions. The new art form moved quickly to other urban centers across the country including Detroit, where it has spread like quicksilver, especially over the past few years.
Detroit’s overabundance of vacant and derelict structures and its wide streets with multiple overpasses is prime real estate for graffiti writers. Take a look at some of the areas where it can be found.
Note: Early last summer I joined four others on a private graffiti tour led by the city’s foremost authority on Detroit’s wall writings. Much of the history and terms used in this and future entries stem directly from that tour. Thanks again, Tom, for an insightful tour!