Photographer seeks Detroit graffiti for art project

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Eleanor Oakes dipped a brush as tall as herself in a tin of tangerine paint and rolled over a yellow, purple and green elephant. It was her third time covering the graffiti splattered on the reddish-brown wall facing Cass Technical High School.

Oakes, a 31-year-old photographer in Detroit, was thrilled.

“It’s like the city is giving me little gifts,” she said. “Every time I come and there’s a new piece, it’s really exciting.”

The Graffiti Wanted wall is Oakes’ brainchild. Through June 3, anyone can paint the wall at 849 Henry in Midtown at any time. Every day, Oakes photographs the graffiti and posts it on the website Every three days, she paints over the artwork so more people have the opportunity to leave their mark.

Oakes came up with the idea from photographing graffiti around Detroit the past year. Neighborhood residents would often stop to chat, curious what she was doing.

“This personal, human element has become a huge part of the project, meeting these people that I don’t know I’d necessarily meet otherwise,” she said. “They were speaking to me really candidly about their hardships they’ve had in the past, their hopes for the city, their hopes for whatever building I’m photographing. I thought by hosting an open wall for graffiti where I would be the eraser, that might be one way to try and involve more people in the project.”

Oakes received an artist residency through Ponyride, an incubator for entrepreneurs in Detroit, which sponsored the two-month project. Finding someone to donate a wall was a lot harder.

“You drive around Detroit, and you’re like, ‘There’s a great wall. There’s a great wall,’ ” says Oakes, pointing to brick buildings surrounding the field of dandelions before the graffiti wall.

But there was one wall in Corktown she had her eyes on.

“I walked in and said, ‘Hi, I’m an artist,’ and the building owner said, ‘No!’ I was like, ‘Can I just finish my sentence?’ He was like, ‘You can try.’ I explained the project to him, and he just said, ‘I’m tired of arguing with the city about what is art and what isn’t. I’ve gotten too many tickets. I wouldn’t be willing to host that project.’ ”

A city of Detroit ordinance requires business owners to clean up graffiti within seven days, or they’ll face fines.

“It stopped people from engaging with her, even though they liked the idea, because they were scared they were going to have a fight with the city,” says Oakes’ boyfriend, Hallam Stanton, a 32-year-old University of Michigan Law School student who was helping scrape wheat paste, readying the wall for the next artist. In essence, the city is censoring expression, he says.

“It’s the worst kind (of censorship) because it’s kind of implying that all street art or graffiti, or whatever you want to call it, is this useless product that no one wants unless it gets to the level of Shepard Fairey,” he says, “and then, apparently, it’s art all of the sudden.”

Stanton is referring to the renowned graffiti artist who designed the Barack Obama “Hope” poster and was commissioned to paint a mural on the east side of 1 Campus Martius. Fairey was arrested for vandalism last year, after tagging several private and public properties he wasn’t hired to paint in Detroit.

Offenders face fines

Mayor Mike Duggan has taken a hard stance against graffiti violators. He told reporters last summer that the city has made multiple arrests and issued hundreds of tickets to individuals caught spray-painting.

“When you come into our city and spray-paint buildings we’re going to arrest you, and we’re going to prosecute you,” he said in July.

Detroit resident Katie Katz owns the Our Gallery building, where the graffiti wall is based, and several properties in the area with her father, Ken Katz. She says their buildings have been tagged in the past, and they had to remove the graffiti to avoid fines.

While they questioned the implications of Oakes’ project, they decided the message of the wall was worth the risk. Plus, Katz says Oakes promised “to accept responsibility for any type of city fine or objection on the part of the city.”

Katz adds that she offered the wall because she thinks public art is “vital” to communities.

“It creates a sense of attachment to one’s community,” she says. “Specifically, this project creates a dialogue about what public art means in the city.”

Art versus enforcement

Artist Dave Wheeler works in the Our Gallery studio and wandered outside clutching a blue and white mug on a sunny Tuesday morning. Gazing at the wall behind blue tinted glasses, he says he at first didn’t understand the project and why Oakes kept painting over the graffiti. Then he got it.

“To me, this is old Detroit versus new Detroit,” he says. “The paintings that keep showing up remind me of old Detroit and what kept showing up five years ago because there was no enforcement anywhere. But then new Detroit is they’re instantly over-painted.”

At the end of the project, Oakes plans to commemorate the public’s contributions by turning her wall photos into a product like a poster.

Ultimately, she says she hopes the wall sparks a dialogue about how to encourage innovative public art in the city. The fact that artists have remained respectful since the wall began April 11 — and haven’t tagged surrounding buildings or even the other side of the gallery — indicates the community wants this, she adds.

“If we give people sanctioned opportunities to express themselves,” she says, “that’s better than just coming from a place of ‘no’ and thinking all graffiti is bad.”


Graffiti Wanted

Location: 849 Henry, Detroit

Time: 24/7 through June 3