Historically, Detroit has put itself on the map for many things: cars, Motown, and electronic music, to name just a few. Now, the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and Entrepreneurship (ACE) has made a map of a different kind — an interactive tool that documents the preponderance of mural art across the city.
Launched in late October, the Detroit Mural Map, powered by CANVS, allows residents and visitors using smartphones to contribute data that geo-locates and identifies mural art. One needs little guidance to find murals in densely decorated environments like the Eastern Market, the Grand River Creative Corridor, or along the Dequindre Cut bike and walking path, but the tool offers information identifying the artists, and will prove additionally useful for those with an insatiable hunger to seek mural art as it proliferates in outlying neighborhood settings.
“ACE is looking for more mural hunters to photograph murals at a time when murals are rising faster than ever before,” said Detroit ACE in a November 10 statement, announcing an online meeting to recruit new mural-hunters. The app debut builds on the heels of an August USA Today article that ranked Detroit number four in the nation of best cities for street art.
The program represents a tonal shift from Mayor Mike Duggan’s extremely aggressive stance on street art. Following his election in 2013, Mayor Duggan launched a zero-tolerance policy on graffiti, and in 2014 established a graffiti task force that targeted artists with fines and jail time, as well as penalizing property owners for failing to clean up after them. The recent effort aims to “better connect residents and visitors with the talented artists who have created and will continue to create iconic murals.”
This is good news for some of the city’s most talented muralists, including Sydney James (organizer of BLKOUT WALLS Detroit), Sheefy McFly, and Waleed Johnson — but the city’s stick-and-carrot approach to censoring street art bears acknowledging. After years of penalizing and white-washing independent and unauthorized street art, the initiative to formalize and approve the art form could be interpreted as a gentrification tactic (or, worse, a potential method for identifying artists to further indict them). However, there are uncynical takes on the initiative, and it at least offers a form of insurance for artists against the ever-present specter of demolition.
“So, let’s say that five years now, nobody wants (a particular) building and it gets torn down,” Riley told the Detroit Free Press. “We won’t lose the art. It’ll say on the app; this is where it existed.” This might be cold comfort for a muralist who has put heart and soul into a project, but it’s better than nothing, which is a situation Detroit street artists deal with all the time in a city experiencing a redevelopment boom. With new growth comes new calls for art, and it seems like Detroit is finally ready to embrace its street-grown talent.
“Now we might be #4,” says a promotional video from Detroit ACE, “but we’re aiming for #1.”