Detroit to make muralists more visible after artist McFly's arrest

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — City officials said they would change the way permits are given to artists after the recent arrest of an artist who was creating a mural as part of a city beautification program.

"Sheefy McFly," or Tashif Turner, 29, said  he faced discrimination when he was stopped by police Wednesday while working on the mural. Police said the officers involved were doing their jobs when they thought he was vandalizing the viaduct.

McFly announced the arrest on Twitter on Friday. 

The city said it would begin authorizing permits in the form of lanyards, and will give the artists sandwich boards that can be posted at their work sites, said Brad Dick, group executive for services and infrastructure for the city of Detroit. The lanyards and boards will be handed out by the end of the week, Dick said.

McFly was working on a project as part of a Viaduct beautification effort, which is part of Detroit's City Walls program. He was at work on Wednesday on a viaduct in the area of Seven Mile and John R when Detroit police officers intervened , said Officer Holly Lance, a Detroit police spokeswoman.

Officers learned after running his name through the police database system that McFly was sought for a traffic-related warrant, Lance said.

"Anyone who has a warrant can be arrested at any time," Lance said. 

McFly, an assistant, a friend and two people from the neighborhood were standing near the viaduct when two female officers pulled up, the artist said Sunday during an interview at the mural site.

Artist Sheefy McFly poses with his unfinished mural, at East Seven Mile near John R.

Detroit's City Walls program kicked off in summer 2017. The City Walls website explains that "the goals of the program are to highlight the values and the identity of the communities where art work is being created, empower Detroit artists and to provide a positive cost benefit to the public via art versus the cost of blight remediation."

The artist told officers he was working on a city-commissioned mural. Officers asked for his permits, Lance said. McFly said he didn't have his permit with him, she said. 

He started to spray-paint a portion of the mural when the officers put their hands on his arms, and one of them grabbed at his neck, he said. McFly said he removed the officer's hand started to walk toward his bag to see if by chance he had his permit with him.

The officers handcuffed him. Back-up officers arrived, and McFly was loaded into the back of a scout car. 

"I wouldn't say I was resisting; I was more standing my ground," McFly said. "But they wanted to put their enforcement on it. They wanted to show me they could put me in their car and take me to jail."

He was arrested for the warrant and on suspicion of resisting and obstructing police and taken to the Detroit Detention Center.

The jail stay would last about "24 hours," McFly said.

"They had horrible food," McFly said. "You're 17 people to a cell. Sleeping on mats. They put you in those kinds of conditions to break you, to make you feel you're beneath the cop. I didn't have to be treated like that. I'm just an artist."

The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office had no information to share Sunday. 

Officers confirmed that McFly had a permit for the mural.

"This entire situation could've played out differently," Lance said. 

"(Police are) not about to make me into an angry black man," McFly said. "They try to push you to become that, and as soon as you do, that's what you are. That's why they said I was resisting arrest. That's why they said I was obstructing justice. But I just want to do the artwork the city paid me for."

Officers from the Detroit Police Department's 11th and 12th precincts had been told of McFly's mural, Dick said. But the officers who pulled up on McFly weren't from either precinct. In addition to the lanyards and sandwich boards, additional notifications will be made to all precincts, Dick said.

The mural McFly was working on is his first under City Walls, and he's been commissioned to do 10 murals for a total of $10,000, Dick said. Because "everybody interprets art differently," he said, artists are given "free reign" after the mural's location has been established and the buy-in from area residents.

McFly's mural covers three long stretches on both sides of the viaduct on East Seven Mile, east of John R.

One is a black-and-white piece with the words "Cartier County" featured prominently, a reference to the eyeglass brand popular among Detroiters. A second, in color, argues that "techno music is black music" and makes a reference to the Jit, a dance popular among Detroiters.

The third was what McFly was working on when he was arrested. He anticipates finishing it later this week. When complete, he'll move on to the other nine murals.

"I didn't do it for the money," McFly said. "I did it to beautify my city. But at this point I'm being overworked, underpaid, and mistreated. Somebody painting downtown, white guy painting downtown, he's getting thousands. Painting in the hood, I'm getting arrested. It shows the dark side of hypergentrification."

City Walls has placed some 40 murals across the city, Dick said. The city's vision is to use art to fight graffiti. The thinking is that people are less likely to "tag" a wall with graffiti if those tags would deface a piece of art.

1xRun/Murals in the Market, which administers the mural program for the city, said it was "unfortunate that Sheefy was arrested as the program kicked off."

"Ensuring communication and education between city officials and police officers is a top priority of the project as it expands throughout the year," said Jesse Cory of 1xRun. "We know this program will have a positive impact across the entire citizenry of Detroit, and we are looking forward to building a deeper understanding of the difference between vandalism and public art."

In summer 2015, the city of Detroit pursued charges against Shepard Fairey, a muralist, who was accused of placing unauthorized posters on nearby buildings while placing commissioned murals. 

That drew mixed reactions. At the time, Detroit police Chief James Craig defended the practice of charging an artist for allegedly placing unauthorized artwork, saying, "it's not that we're not going after violent crime; we're going after all crime." 

A judge dismissed the charges against Fairey, and the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, arguing that prosecutors never proved it was Fairey who'd put up the posters in the first place.