DETROIT — Heading east on Grand Boulevard from the Woodward corridor that bisects the city of Detroit, you can’t miss a 100-foot portrait of artist and activist Halima Cassells on the side of a building, acting as a sort of sentry to the entrance of the North End neighborhood. The mural is a visual send-up of Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” done Motor City-style with an old English script “D”-for-Detroit earring in place of the eponymous original, and a shirt bearing patches with the names of some of the places along the North End’s Oakland Avenue strip that once made it Detroit’s premier entertainment district. Places like Apex Bar and Phelps Lounge hosted talents like James Brown, Etta James, George Clinton, and the Parliament — as well as featuring the Motown groups that hailed from the North End, before going on to international fame, including Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, the Four Tops, and Aretha Franklin.

Jame’s mural on Grand Boulevard, completed separately from BLKOUT Walls, but a visible landmark of the festival area

The muralist, Sydney James, is also a hometown hero and her work can be found on walls across the city — from private female-led businesses like Live Cycle Delight, to major thoroughfares like the Eastern Market — lending visibility to the Black women who do so much in the city of Detroit. Now, James is one of three founders — along with Max Sansing and Thomas “Detour” Evans — and numerous organizers for BLKOUT Walls Detroit, a Black-led, open-air mural festival in its inaugural year, focused on bringing “museum-quality art” straight to the neighborhood.

“I was a drop-in artist at Crush Walls festival in 2019,” said James, who took time to speak with Hyperallergic in the midst of painting one of three walls for festival, which runs from July 24 and culminates in a come-one-come-all block party on July 31. “Max Sansing was there, too. And often in these spaces [Black muralists] are always happy to see each other, because whether it’s Murals in the Market or Pow! Wow!, we will be one of very few Black people in this sea of whiteness.”

Work by Max Sansing on Bethune Street

BLKOUT Walls looks to flip that script, with all-Black leadership and majority Black artists from the 19 participating muralists, including a number of Detroit artists who have already made their mark on the city: Tylonn J. Sawyer, Ghostbeard, and 2021 KAID Fellow Backpak Durden. The festival also features some out-of-town talents, like Birdcap, sentrock, and Rahmaan Statik.

“I always wanted BLKOUT to come here first,” said James. “We can do that in Detroit, because we have the space, we have the opportunity, and we definitely have the community to support such a thing. In all these other arenas, they rarely break 10% Black artists, and all Black men.”

BLKOUT Walls is ongoing this week, with live painting events, artist talks, walking tours of the murals that span stretches of Oakland Avenue, Grand Boulevard, and adjacent side streets, and a culminating block party on Saturday. The murals will stand beyond the confines of the festival, and hopefully serve as seeds for even more artistic growth and fair representation on the streets of Detroit, and far, far beyond.

James and Sensing at work, as BLKOUT Walls opens to the public
New work by Birdcap for BLKOUT Walls
Work-in-progress by Bakpak Durden
Work-in-progress by Detroit artist Demien Deyonte. BLKOUT Walls is his first invitation to a festival.

BLKOUT Walls events continue in Detroit through Saturday, July 31.

Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...