July 19, 2009 at 1:00 am

Donna Terek: Donna's Detroit | With video

Dequindre Cut revealed as a gallery of graffiti masterworks

Graffiti in the Dequindre Cut extends from the river end entrance through the Lafayette Blvd. overpass. (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)

Ten years ago almost no one knew about the Dequindre Cut, except for the homeless guys who made it their base and the graffiti artists who adopted it as their open air art studio.

Before long, urban explorers made it a must on their tours of the city because the graffiti in the Cut was more vibrant and elaborate than graf art anywhere else in town. Photographers with a sweet tooth for all things visual were drawn to the spray-painted eye candy. In 1999 even I took the plunge and did a fashion shoot for The Detroit News in the Cut. The art made amazing backdrops. Protected from the elements, the murals under the overpasses were graf art masterpieces.

Lots of graf art is visible around town, but the Dequindre Cut was the place for doing pieces and productions because it was so under the radar and, therefore, a safe place for trespassers to paint images that could take hours to produce. Artists could take their time and perfect their technique without fear of getting caught.

The Cut is a trench under the streets of the former Black Bottom neighborhood now known as Lafayette Park and runs between Orleans and St. Aubin streets. It's a defunct railroad line that ran from the Detroit River warehouse district north through Eastern Market and out to the suburbs. A one-mile stretch recently opened as the Dequindre Cut Greenway, a spur off the River Walk, open from Woodbridge on the south to Gratiot on the north, and is attracting bicyclists, rollerbladers and walkers to its level roadway.

Since the greenway opened, underpass walls and arches, long hidden beneath the streets, have become exposed -- and with them the eye-stabbing colors and line of tags, throw-ups, and full-blown pieces and productions by the city's graffiti artists.

While the greenway is a wonderful showcase for this underground art, ironically it threatens it's survival. While this ad hoc museum of hip hop culture is opening people's eyes to long hidden talent, it is also closing off the venue from the organic painting and repainting that is inherent in graffiti culture.

The exposure is also accelerating the peeling of years of layered paint. And many layers there are. "Yeah, we expect our work to get painted over," says Sintex, a.k.a. Brian Glass. Painting over someone's piece is a challenge, like saying, "I can do better than this."

But certain pieces in the Cut have been on the walls untouched for years due to graf artists' respect for those who've risen to the level of "kings." Take two faded figures on a wall north of the Lafayette Bridge. They're by Beta, one of Detroit's first graf artists. One is a wizard, one a court jester juggling Krylon spray paint cans. Back when the piece was painted, the only tools available were Krylon and Rustoleum paints. Nowadays there are many paints made specially for the needs of graf artists.

Graffiti artists, "graf artists" or "writers" as they call themselves, are one of the four arms of hip-hop culture. The other three are break dancers, rappers and dejays. "Unlike any other art medium, this is one of the most competitive ones," says Sicari Ware, proprietor of Corktown's 5 Elements Gallery (the name refers to one more hip-hop element: love).

Much the way rappers "battle" with their words, graf "writers" compete with cans of spray paint to see who can produce the finest line or sweetest blend of colors. It's all about technique. And it's all in the names. "It's like advertising," says Ware. The goal is to "get up," get known, by putting your name in as many places as possible. The names read like a graffiti Who's Who: Sist, Fel, Sintex, Riku, Porab, Army, Shades. "We called this our Hall of Fame," says Shades, a.k.a. Antonio Agee, a 38-year-old graf artist who has graduated from the streets to the art galleries.

At the simplest level is the tag, a hasty but arty scribble of the name or tag in a single color. Then there's the throw-up, where letters are "bubbled" up and filled in one color and outlined in another. Rollers are large, blocky signatures done with a house paint roller in one or two colors. A piece, short for masterpiece, is a complex rendering of the tag using multiple colors, sometimes in "wild style" with interlocking letters that can be difficult for the uninitiated to decipher. A piece can incorporate characters or faces and 3-D effects. Sometimes a group of writers or "crew" get together to do a large-scale production with a color theme or background uniting pieces painted by the members.

Originally, much of the cut was sunk deeper underground and rose to meet street level as it reached the warehouse district. In creating the park, the grade was raised and leveled, so many of the graffiti murals are partly or totally buried. But lots of work is still visible under the overpasses and on walls that used to support overpasses. Eventually some plan for conserving and expanding the art in the Dequindre Cut will be developed, according to Faye Alexander Nelson, president and CEO of Riverfront Conservancy, which supervises the Greenway. But nothing is in place just yet.

Graf artist Gray stands in front of one of his works. (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
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