Detroiter aims to document every mural in the city

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Detroit — Detroiter Viranel Clerard is standing on the ninth floor of the Z garage in the city’s downtown. It’s 11 a.m. on a weekday, and a row of cars is blocking his favorite mural in the city: “Endless Frontier” by Gaia, an artist from New York City.

“You gotta come after 5 p.m. when it’s empty,” said the 24-year-old, taking in the picturesque mural of mountains and trees surrounding a lake. He scoots past a red-striped Camaro.

In the past four months, Viranel Clerard has photographed more than 400 murals that he features on his blog

“You can come up to it, and see he really took the time to meticulously make this mural,” said Clerard, touching the burgundy and yellow brush strokes forming a mountain. “It’s insane. When (the garage) is empty, and the lights are hitting it, it’s like ‘wow.’ ”

In the past four months, Clerard has photographed more than 400 murals that he features on his blog Each post includes the artist and location, so Detroiters and visitors can find the artwork. He has another 1,500 murals he’s captured on his screen-cracked iPhone and just needs to upload.

“One day, I was really feeling it,” said Clerard, grinning. “I went out and shot 300 murals in one day.”

Yet “Endless Frontier” stands out from the rest. The piece was commissioned by the Library Street Collective and Bedrock Detroit, which brought 27 artists from around the world to turn the mundane parking garage on Broadway into a 10-story masterpiece.

“It’s arguably the best presentation of murals in the whole world,” Clerard said.

When the Eastpointe native isn’t mural scouting, he works 32 hours a week at an Ann Arbor Trader Joe’s, drives for Uber between 4 a.m. and 9 a.m. and is constantly on his smartphone trading stocks.

“That way, I can make at least $100, $200 in a week,” he said.

It’s all so he can spend 40 hours a week on a passion project that doesn’t earn him a cent: documenting every mural in the city of Detroit.

Clerard always loved art, but he credits newspaper journalism for motivating him to pursue photography.

From age 18 to 21, Clerard emptied the trash and cleaned the editors’ offices at the former Detroit News building on Lafayette. He worked as a janitor 4 p.m. to midnight every weekday.

“You know kids party all night when they’re 18 and have all that fun? I spent it with the writers and editors at The News,” he said.

This was 2012, a few months after Clerard graduated from East Detroit High School with a 1.2 GPA.

“I wanted to be in journalism, and considering my grades and the fact that I wasn’t in college, that was the best way for me to get access to a newsroom,” he said.

It worked. Some photographers, such as former photo editor Darrel Ellis, let him tag along on shoots.

“By the time I got to know him, he was already a good photographer,” said Ellis, who’d share tips on shooting portraits. “He was always up to help.”

In 2013, a person carjacked his blue Hyundai Elantra, stealing his iPhone and MacBook. Clerard used technology to track his belongings and get them all back. The editors were impressed. They asked him to write a first-person piece and printed it as a section cover story.

“The people who work there don’t realize that I had an internship there as a janitor,” Clerard said.

Clerard eventually left to attend Washtenaw Community College and study photojournalism. The goal was to get hired as a newspaper photographer, but after talking with David Turnley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and mentor, he realized he didn’t need a “machine” publication to do the thing he loved.

So he left school in pursuit of his passions.

In January, Clerard started documenting exhibits at contemporary art museums around the city and posting the photos on his blog. Looking at the crowds, one thing bothered him.

“There’s not a lot of people from outside of downtown Detroit there,” he said. “Not a lot of kids that are my age, not a lot of kids that look like me: black kids, minorities.”

This is the “whole problem with two Detroits,” he added.

“There’s the Detroit that can go to an art show where there’s a $2,000 painting on the wall, and there’s the Detroit that doesn’t even know that part exists.”

He started taking kids — little cousins and friends of friends — to shows. He wanted to get them there, then get them to return with friends.

Which brings us to why he doesn’t charge to access the blog.

“Kids already have a hard time getting access to the arts,” Clerard said. “They’re not going to get it through school, they’re not going to look for it themselves and so this blog has to be free. It has to look like they’re paying $20 a month for it, but be free. I want to give them the best site.”

The site is self-funded through all his jobs, but he hopes to gain support from local museums or foundations.

Elysia Borowy-Reeder, executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, said she “loved the idea” behind the blog.

“I can appreciate it because you do so much driving in Detroit, that if you have a way to identify some of this amazing artwork, that’s great,” Borowy-Reeder said. “I think that it gives credit to artists when perhaps they don’t get credit.”

Murals In the Market organizer Jesse Cory, co-founder of the art print publisher 1xRUN, met Clerard a few months ago and was stunned by his endeavor.

“I’ve been part of the Detroit graffiti and mural scene for years, and I’ve seen photographers document specific artists or genres, but I’ve never met anybody who’s taken on such a tremendous amount of effort to document every mural in the city,” Cory said. “The amount of artwork that he’s documented is nothing short of a feat that would be taken on, not by many.”

The site categorizes murals by neighborhood. Cory suggested mapping the murals, creating what could turn into a mural scavenger hunt.

“If he could merge technology and art in a way that the entire community could use, I think that would be really beneficial,” Cory said. “Because I think people will want to plot these places on a map and hit the streets to see all the artwork for themselves.”

Clerard estimates he has 600 to 700 murals left to document. He plans to finish the project in the next year, so it’s ready for the 2018 Murals in the Market festival.

By now, Clerard has met most of the artists behind the murals. His favorites include Australian artist David “MEGGS” Hooke and Detroit artist Fel3000ft.

On the Z garage top floor, overlooking the old Hudson site, Clerard gazes at the red and black, 184-foot Shepard Fairey mural sprawling the One Campus Martius building.

“Detroit has a big issue right now where they have to play the role of, ‘Is this art, or is this graffiti?’ And he walks that edge,” said Clerard, referring to Fairey, a renowned street artist who faced charges last year for tagging Detroit buildings without permission. “He’s been walking that edge for a very long time. I like it. I like that Dan Gilbert put him on this giant wall ... (and) gave him the platform to show his work off.”

But the geometric pastel wall behind him is more what he wants to showcase. Painted by a Russian artist, he said artwork like this is tucked all over the city.

“It’s just a beautiful piece of work,” he said. “And that’s what exists in neighborhoods.”

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Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg