Compuware mural graffiti artist probed for tagging

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Well-known street artist Shepard Fairey often paints "Obey" on his murals — but Detroit police are investigating whether he disobeyed the law and allegedly tagged buildings without authorization.

Fairey, the artist behind the iconic Obama "Hope" poster, was hired to paint and recently finished a 184-foot-tall mural on the east side of the Compuware building owned by downtown building magnate Dan Gilbert, a large billboard on East Grand River, a water tower bearing the artist's trademark "Obey" logo and several temporary murals.

But police are investigating whether Fairey was responsible for vandalism, after seeing several paintings that resemble his work, which is hallmarked by stencils and predominately black, red and tan spray paint.

"This is an ongoing investigation," Detroit Police Chief James Craig said Monday. "We'll let the facts show what they show, and we'll move forward."

A spokeswoman for the 45-year-old artist said Monday he's traveling and not available for comment.

During an interview with The Detroit News last week, Fairey said his work isn't seen in Detroit as defacing property.

"Everyone here is so enthusiastic," the Los Angeles artist said. "And in Detroit, street art isn't seen as vandalism, but as an enhancement."

Fairey, 45, told a group of elementary students last week at the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences he's been arrested 17 times for tagging buildings.

Mayor Mike Duggan said he expected the case "to be investigated vigorously like any other case."

"(Wayne County Prosecutor Kym) Worthy, I think, has brought seven different felony charges over the last six months of graffiti artists. Almost invariably, they are people from outside the city of Detroit."

He added progress has been made since last year against graffiti, when he announced a crackdown on taggers.

Recent high-profile cases involving taggers include three Grosse Pointe Woods teenage girls, who were arrested last year after Gilbert appealed to the public for help in finding those responsible for defacing buildings downtown. The teens entered a plea deal to serve 60 hours of community service, including cleaning graffiti from buildings, and $2,000 in restitution.

In February, two 19-year-olds — Marcelus Gray of Lathrup Village and Taylor Daramy of Southfield — were charged with vandalism after allegedly painting an image on a youth center building depicting an angel pointing a gun at a police officer.

"You want to see something interesting? Drive out Michigan Avenue from here all the way out, and see how much graffiti you see," Duggan said Monday. "When you look at what's happening, graffiti is being dramatically reduced. We had one case where they went and busted a guy off a YouTube video. The level of commitment we're making is great."

The crackdown hit a few snags, including city inspectors accidentally issuing tickets to businesses that had commissioned artists to paint murals on their buildings. Duggan spokesman John Roach said all the tickets that were issued erroneously were rescinded.

Duggan has a long history of targeting graffiti. In 2003, when he was Wayne County prosecutor, he charged two out-of-towners with malicious destruction of property, and used investigative subpoenas in order to compel the men, from Wisconsin and California, to give up information about graffiti artists. Both men pleaded guilty and spent 60 days in the Wayne County Jail.

(313) 222-2134

Staff Writer Michael Hodges contributed.