November 14, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Donna Terek: Donna's Detroit

Street artists put unique brand on Detroit

Hygienic Dress League
Hygienic Dress League: If you've seen mysterious signs around town that look like they might be advertising, it may be the artwork of this duo.

Hygienic Dress League. Maybe you've seen the mysterious phrase stenciled on a mural of a gas-masked man and woman and wondered "What the ...?"

Affectionately known as HDL, Hygienic Dress League is a brand, a marketing tool, a corporation and — oh yeah — refers to the dynamic married duo, street artists Steve and Dorota Coy, both 32.

During their three years in Detroit, they have done several public art projects each year: The two stenciled characters on a building in Rivertown's Franklin Street; they created a hot pink mural on the Charlevoix Building on Park Street, across from Cliff Bell's; another featured a pretend shoot-out on a plywood wall on Woodward Avenue in the heart of downtown.

Those are all gone now. But that's part of the ephemeral nature of street art.The upside isit brings work to an audience that might not go to an art gallery.

"Anybody that walks up can have an interaction with what you did," says Dorota, "and that's really fascinating to both of us."

Three projects are still viewable: "New Location" across from Gratiot Central Market is a redo of the piece that was painted over on Woodward,on the same building is a tagged-over mural of gold birds on a red ground, and off Willis between Second and Third, two figures warn, "Detroit Revolution, coming this summer."

At 5:07 p.m. Saturday, the Coys will publicly unveil their newest — and most ambitious — project, a large $13,000 neon sign mounted on the Roosevelt Hotel on 14th off Michigan Avenue in Corktown. Called "No Vacancy," it plays off the emptiness of the defunct hotel and features pigeons, which are often seen in their work to represent their ubiquity in urban settings.

Steve grew up in the suburbs including Brighton and Bloomfield Hills. Dorota was born in Poland and grew up in upstate New York. The couple met five years ago in Hawaii, while Steve was working on his master's degree in fine art. They've been married for three years.

HDL'stough-to-forget moniker came when Steve was a grad student at University of Hawaii. He and Dorota joined a group of young artists mounting a gallery show centered on pop culture and fashion. Their research unearthed the late 19th-, early 20th-century movement to make clothing more practical and comfortable under the auspices of groups called the Rational Dress League, the Sensible Dress Society and the Hygienic Dress League.

"We were looking for something that made you go, 'Hmmm, what does that mean?'" says Dorota.

Hygienic Dress League fit the bill.

Their first project was the elegant decoration of the castle-like Grand Army of the Republic Building downtown. They painted the doors a high-gloss red and stenciled gold birds over the ground in a pattern that looks like wallpaper or the markings on a Louis Vuitton handbag.That similarity is no accident, because Hygienic Dress League is all about branding.

Unlike companies that produce art that captures consumers' attention and directs them to stores and websites, the Hygienic Dress League creates hype and branding without producing any commodity at all — unless curiosity can be considered a product. Keeping with the ethos, the couple make no money from their projects.

"It's artwork posing as advertising," says Steve, "not advertising posing as artwork, which is what happens a lot in our world right now."

Ironically or otherwise, Dorota is in advertising. She's an associate producer for Team Detroit.

Steve is an adjunct art lecturer at University of Michigan and teaches at the YArts program at the Boll Family YMCA downtown. He's also a founder, with Brandon Walley, of Detroit Projection Project, which projects contemporary art onto buildings.

Much of the Coys' work is built around two figures who are executives in the Hygienic Dress League, a fictitious company that — underscoring the Coys' ambivalent relationship with reality — is nonetheless registered as a corporation in Michigan. The two purposefully build mystery and tension into their projects, hoping Detroiters will be on the lookout for their next message.

They always try to get permission from building owners and place their murals on impermanent parts of the structures, never painting over brick or stone. It's one reason Detroit is such a good location — it'll be years before they run out of boarded-up buildings to adorn."Detroit's a place where people are really receptive to new ideas," says Steve, "and it seems like there's a community out there that's willing to do a lot to help these kinds of projects be realized."

For "No Vacancy," the couple raised $5,000 from a kickstarter.com campaign launched by Jerry Paffendorf and Mary Lorene Carter of the Loveland Project; another $6,000 from the Knight Foundation; and $1,000 from Phil Cooley of Slow's Bar BQ, who also helped secure the sign's framework to the hotel roof.

That meant the Coys, who usually fund their own projects, had to come up with only about $1,000 of their own money to round out the budget.

Steve and Dorota Coy of Hygienic Dress League work with a crew to install their piece "No Vacancy" on the side of the empty Roosevelt Hotel in Detroit's Roosevelt Park. / Donna Terek / The Detroit News
Steve Coy helps install his artwork on the side of the Roosevelt Hotel. (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
Steve and Dorota Coy share a moment of celebration as the neon is lit up. (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
Dorota and Steve Coy admire their piece "No Vacancy" on the ... (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
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