February 26, 2012 at 1:00 am

Donna Terek: Donna's Detroit

Street artist sneaks into neighborhoods, leaves a bit of whimsy

Deco23: Giving his art away
Deco23: Giving his art away: If you can get the artwork off the street sign, it's yours, says Wyandotte artist Brian Melvin.

Like any neighborhood, the Woodbridge area west of Wayne State has its share of "No Parking" and "Neighborhood Watch" signs. But unlike most Detroit neighborhoods, it also has some extra signage affixed randomly to the posts of some of those same official notices.

The wooden plaques come in a rainbow of colors and sport whimsical characters with toothy grins and occasional thought bubbles imparting mysterious messages like "ERRONEOUS" and "EAT HUMANS."

Since the signs began appearing in 2007,Woodbridge residents have speculated on which of their neighbors is responsible.

"There's one by my house that's a little monster guy that says, 'I (heart) farts,' " says Sarena Ridley, 26, who lives on Commonwealth. "I took a picture of it and told a bunch of people to go look at it. It definitely made me giggle."

Deborah Ford O'Brien, 58, passes one every day as she leaves her home on Avery. "It makes our neighborhood more interesting and creative," she says. "The thing I like most about them is they're unexpected."

The little paintings are signed "Deco" for Deco23, the graffiti handle of Brian Melvin. And Woodbridgeans may be surprised to learn he's not one of them. Melvin, 36, lives in Wyandotte.

The roughly 24-by-10-inch paintings aren't permanent. They're affixed to the sign posts with bolts and nuts and available for taking home by anyone with a pair of pliers. Some get taken down right away, but others survive for years. The very first one Melvin mounted in 2007, a painting of a pirate ship, is faded — but still there — on Commonwealth.

Recently he put up a sign whose character states, "(expletive) cancer," in memory of his mother, who passed away a few months ago.

O'Brien says she's not offended at all. As a breast cancer survivor, she seconds that emotion.

'Art's an addiction'

Woodbridge is not the only neighborhood that benefits from Melvin's largesse, but his signs have more longevity here. In other areas, his signs may disappear the day after he puts them up. He's gotten messages from people who've sent him photos of his works they've "collected" and hung on their walls.

"I hung them up everywhere, but I focused on Woodbridge," Melvin says. "It's more of an artistic community, a younger crowd, and you can tell they're trying to bring it back."

Melvin grew up in a trailer park, his family on welfare. He's a working-class guy who paints because he can't stop himself. His compulsion is as uncontrollable as the mild Tourette's syndrome he suffers from.

"Art's an addiction," he says. "I do so much of it, and I accumulate so much art, that I have to keep putting it out on the street."

He attended community college for a few years, studying criminal justice, art and acting. He'd always wanted to be a cop, but decided his graffiti and street art would be a conflict, so he dropped criminal justice. That left his art classes, but he soon wondered why he was paying to do what he already did for free.

So he switched to a trade school and became a union carpenter. He worked, bought a home and started a family. Then, when his son Eli was 1, the bottom dropped out of the housing market and he lost his house. He's been out of work for three years and supports himself and Eli doing odd jobs and selling what he can of his artwork.

Melvin's street art used to include graffiti.

"I used to go out there and paint on whatever I wanted. But I have a son now. I can't be going out painting on stuff. I mean, if I go to jail, what happens to my kid?"

Eli's mother is not in his life right now, and Melvin has full custody of his son. "I'm the only one he depends on."

Hoping to make art a career

Of course, hanging paintings on municipal sign posts may not be legal either, but Melvin doesn't seem too worried. "It's not really defacing any property. I'm just putting some bolts on a sign," he says. "If a police officer or someone from the city comes up and sees me doing it, I can take it right back off."

Melvin also has black and white stickers of his characters scattered around town and diminutive wooden "tiles" glued on rocks in the Lincoln Street Art Park not far from Woodbridge. But he really enjoys doing large-scale work and is proud to say he painted a wall at Miami's Art Basel festival a few years ago. Another mural is part of the Lincoln Street underpass project adjacent to the art park.

He hopes that somehow his clandestine project will lead to a career in art. "I want what everyone else wants," he says. "I want to be able to do what I love for a living."

He sees signs of hope. Last month, he paid his bills with proceeds from his art. This month, he may get a commission to paint a mural.

"It's starting to feel like it's becoming a career."

How can a guy who needs money himself give away his work like this?

Melvin insists money is not important to him. The work "is for people who don't have anything, who don't even have the money to go to a museum to look at art," he says.

"People don't have money to buy art in this economy," he says. "So I put my artwork out there for you to enjoy it, for you to have it for free."

In spite of that sentiment, he doesn't make it that easy. "I put it on with bolts, and I bend them over so it's really hard to get off," he says. "So if you want it, you've got to work for it."

Deco23 can be reached by email at bmelvin2323@gmail.com

Brian Melvin, 36, who paints as Deco23, poses with his piece "Steal This." Melvin paints "signs" and bolts them onto signposts in Detroit, fully expecting most of them to be stolen by admirers of his artwork. / Donna Terek/The Detroit News
One of Melvin's signs in thethe Woodbridge neighborhood of Detroit. (Donna Terek/The Detroit News)