Michigan Central Station graffiti repurposed as jewelry

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News
Amy Peterson, CEO and co-founder of Rebel Nell, a social empowerment jewelry designer employing disadvantaged women to design necklaces and earrings out of fallen graffiti, shows off a necklace made from fallen graffiti inside the Michigan Central Station in Detroit.

Detroit – Splashes of bold graffiti cover the massive peeling walls inside the long-vacant train station in Corktown. But just as Ford Motor Co. is giving new life to the derelict depot, the flaking graffiti paint that fell to the floor is finding new purpose as the Michigan Central Station jewelry collection.

Ford, which purchased the 600,000-square-foot historic building to create a center for self-driving and electrified cars, has partnered with a local company known as Rebel Nell, which turns fallen pieces of graffiti into jewelry shaped like the Michigan mitten and the city of Detroit. The collection is a limited run of only 300 pieces, and nearly 100 already have been sold.

“The train station has been closed since 1988, and had become a playground for local artists,” said Shawn Wilson, manager of community engagement for the Ford Fund, from inside the eerily quiet station Tuesday. “We wanted to pay homage to the artists.”

To accomplish that mission, Ford worked with Rebel Nell co-founder and CEO Amy Peterson of Detroit, who said she only took graffiti that had fallen from the walls. Rebel Nell, which has also created wearable art with graffiti from the Dequindre Cut and elsewhere in Detroit, has a strict “no peel” policy.

Rebel Nell, located in shared workspace in Corktown’s Ponyride incubator for artists and creative start-ups, began in 2013. Its mission is to employ women facing employment barriers in Detroit, educate them on financial management, life wellness and entrepreneurship, and empower them to transition to a life of independence.

“There is an amazing partnership between Rebel Nell and Ford Motor Co. to help memorialize their new home,” said Peterson, a former attorney. She wore an over-sized graffiti pendant necklace and displayed several other pieces on a black velvet cloth inside the station station Tuesday. “We’ve been able to collect graffiti that’s been here for years.”

Pendants and earrings made by Rebel Nell, a social empowerment jewelry designer employing disadvantaged women to design necklaces and earrings out of fallen graffiti, are seen inside the Michigan Central Station. These pieces, some in the shape of a map of Detroit, were made from paint chips of graffiti fallen from the walls inside the historic Corktown Detroit train station.

Peterson explained that Rebel Nell hires women transitioning out of homelessness to work on the jewelry.

“The beautiful part is that each piece of art is unique and you’re not only buying a bit of the graffiti, but because of the women who made it,” she said. Michigan Central Station jewelry ranges from $35 to $225, and can be purchased at rebelnell.com.

Ford’s relationship with Rebel Nell began over a year ago. It was among the participants in the Ford Resource and Engagement Center accelerator competition for social entrepreneurs. Rebel Nell was the winner, and awarded $25,000. Ford’s donation to the project, which included three days of workshops for visitors and two new staff hires, was an additional $25,000.

“Bleed blue” tagged in blue spray paint still greets visitors on a wall near the entrance to the train station as Ford begins to rehabilitate the structure. Other words and slogans are less easy to decipher.  

After Train No. 353 bound for Chicago left the station in January 1988, the once-grand structure eventually became left open to the elements and to street artists who left their marks in green, yellow and red.

With all the planned renovations of the old train station, what will happen to what remains on the walls?

“It is likely that we will preserve some of the graffiti, but there aren't any official plans around that yet,” said Ford spokesman Karl Henkel.

Proceeds from the Michigan Central Station collection will benefit four local charities near Corktown and Southwest Detroit, including the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS), a nonprofit that provides housing and other services for the homeless; Vista Maria, which supports vulnerable youth; Covenant House, which provides shelter to young people who have nowhere to go; and Love Runs, an organization working to stop human trafficking.

Rebel Nell hires women from COTS as creative designers. The company recently hired its 20th woman from the shelter.