Photo of the Grand River Creative Corridor.

A Grand River Creative Corridor mural (courtesy Grand River Creative Corridor)

The city of Detroit launched a secret new graffiti crackdown in the most antagonizing manner imaginable last week: by issuing thousands of dollars in fines to owners of businesses who had commissioned or given permission to artists to create murals on their buildings.

In an effort to combat blight in the bankrupt city, its Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED) began issuing tickets last week to business owners along Grand River Avenue, which has suffered from years of blight, according to Motor City Muckraker. But most of those murals had been created over the last two years under the auspices of the Grand River Creative Corridor (GRCC) initiative — which received a “Keep Michigan Beautiful” award from Michigan governor Rick Snyder in 2012 and saw more than 100 artists invited by building and business owners to beautify the area. Real estate executive Derek Weaver, who launched the GRCC and owns local gallery 4731, received some $8,000 in fines and was detained for an hour by four police officers last week. The officers also seized the equipment of a PBS camera crew that had been filming an artist working on a mural.

“We were treated like criminals …They threatened to arrest us,” Weaver said to Motor City Muckraker. “I told the mayor that if you aren’t careful, and if you come down with iron fists, you’ll force a lot of good artists, entrepreneurs and small business owners out of the city,” Weaver told the Detroit Free Press.

Photo of the Grand River Creative Corridor

A Grand River Creative Corridor mural (photo by ddatch54/Flickr)

Detroit mayor Mike Duggan was quick to apologize for the gaffe and void the tickets.

“I felt like I gave explicit directions that wall art and murals done with owners’ permission should not be ticketed,” Duggan said, according to the Detroit Free Press. “We made a mistake. But we also issued a large number of tickets for graffiti that was appropriate.”

The graffiti crackdown also snared Brooklyn Street Local, a diner on Michigan Avenue in Corktown whose exterior features a sanctioned mural that recently suffered water damage and is currently being removed. Mayor Duggan paid the eatery a visit to apologize personally for the $130 fine that owners Deveri Gifford and Jason Yates received.

“I understand that graffiti is a problem in this city and a problem for business owners who get unwanted tags etc on their buildings, however the street art is a significant part of what makes Detroit great and unique and it deserves to be celebrated!” one of Brooklyn Street Local’s owners wrote on the diner’s Facebook page. “We would also like to express our appreciation to mayor Mike Duggan who quickly responded and personally apologized for the issued tickets.”

Despite the initial hiccup, the city’s new anti-graffiti initiative will continue, focusing on the major corridors of Michigan, Grand River, Gratiot, Jefferson, and Woodward avenues, and Vernor Highway.

Photo of the Grand River Creative Corridor.

A Grand River Creative Corridor mural (courtesy Grand River Creative Corridor)

“I wouldn’t say the (inspectors) were overzealous,” Eric Jones, the director of the BSEED, told Crain’s Detroit Business. “They are hard-working men. Some of the graffiti art was blurred and ambiguous and questionable, so they erred on the side of enforcing the code … After a second look, we decided we were going to move forward with locations that are clearly blighted.”

According to Detroit’s laws, building owners are responsible for removing unwanted graffiti from the exteriors of their properties. Once a ticket has been issued, they have 14 days to remove the graffiti, after which time the fine is enforced.

Predictably, Detroit’s official definitions of graffiti and “art murals” leave much room for interpretation, as Crain’s Detroit Business points out. Graffiti, according to section 9-1-3 of the municipal code of ordinances, consists of “Unauthorized drawings, lettering, illustrations or other graphic markings on the exterior of a building, premises or structure which are intended to deface or mar the appearance of the building, premises or structure.” Meanwhile, per section 3-7-2 of the code, legal murals are “any mosaic, painting or graphic art, which is applied to a building and does not contain any brand name, product name, letters of the alphabet that spell or abbreviate the name of any product, company, profession or business or any logo, trademark, trade name or any other type of commercial message.” The distinction between the two, apparently, was too subtle for the city’s inspectors.

“I’m embarrassed,” Duggan told the Free Press. “I thought we had given clear direction to our inspectors that, when you have wall art and murals that had the permission of building owners, that was not going to be ticketed.”

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...