Berman: War on graffiti snags street art

Laura Berman
The Detroit News
A mural at Brooklyn Street Local, commissioned by owners Deveri Gifford and Jason Yates, is being repaired. Mayor Mike Duggan visited the diner Wednesday to apologize for the ticket they received.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has declared war on graffiti — and some business owners who suffered collateral damage also have received mayoral apologies.

The mayor, who says bluntly, "I hate graffiti," acknowledged Wednesday that overzealous inspectors had unfairly ticketed local business owners in recent weeks, including a gallery owner and diner owner who had commissioned works of art.

Inspectors are being deployed methodically along the city's major arteries — including Jefferson, Woodward, Grand River, and Michigan and Gratiot avenues — to ticket where taggers have left their marks. Vandals with spray cans are being charged with malicious destruction of property and, in many cases, prosecuted.

The mayor said about a dozen vandals have been prosecuted, with varying penalties. The crime can be a misdemeanor, punishable by fines or up to 93 days in jail, or a felony with up to 10 years in prison.

A mural at Grand River and Vermont is part of an anti-blight project by Derek Weaver. His efforts received numerous tickets from the city.

"I am fully supportive of the art movement in this city," he said, but unsolicited art on public or private property is now a focus of Police Chief James Craig's "quality of life" detail. Duggan also said he's asked the state of Michigan to remove graffiti from freeway overpasses in the city limits "and they are working on that."

A barrage of graffiti tickets attracted attention this week, when business owners complained and blogger Steve Neavling noted the crackdown. On Wednesday, Duggan said inspectors from the Building, Safety and Engineering Department were "re-trained" to better understand distinctions between public art and unwanted graffiti.

Tuesday, a Detroit building inspector slapped a $130 ticket on Deveri Gifford and the Brooklyn Street Local, a popular downtown diner, for violating a city graffiti ordinance. Alas, it wasn't graffiti but art: Gifford and her husband, Jason Yates, had commissioned the artist to paint the red, black and white mural two years ago.

At about the same time, Derek Weaver, a founder of the Grand River Creative Corridor, discovered a fistful of yellow tickets on his property. Weaver, who has organized elaborate mural painting as a form of blight control, was ticketed for graffiti. "If you add up the tickets, it's about $8,000 worth," he said.

Gifford and Weaver were the unfortunate targets of the new policy to aggressively ticket business owners who don't remove graffiti. "I tried to explain that I had hired the artist," Gifford says, "but (the inspector) said I could explain it all in court."

The mayor says he supports street art that is commissioned, but the city will fine building owners who don’t remove unwanted graffiti.

How tone deaf was the Duggan administration? A few blog posts and phone calls got the mayor's attention by Wednesday. Yes, it was true that he hates graffiti and is stepping up enforcement. No, it's not true that building owners can no longer display murals, or that the 150-year-old tradition of painting on Detroit buildings had come to an abrupt halt.

Before noon, Duggan and a couple of other city officials pulled into the Brooklyn Street Local parking lot on Michigan. Gifford didn't recognize the mayor — but once she got over her surprise, she accepted his apology and promise to clarify the graffiti policy, especially to his own inspectors. Weaver also got an apologetic call from the mayor.

"There are growing pains," Duggan said. The assault on graffiti is serious but limited, he said. "If you're a building owner who authorizes art on your building, you won't be ticketed." But, clarifying the policy, he said he is holding responsible building owners for unauthorized graffiti on their buildings. They'll have 14 days to remove graffiti — and if they don't, they'll be fined.

Weaver said Duggan promised to revoke the tickets, providing a city contact in case he had any difficulty. "I support the mayor's decision to crack down on graffiti," he said. "It needs to be controlled and regulated. But what we're doing is an alternative approach to blight control. We invite artists to create murals."

The result, he says, isn't more blight but a way to attract photographers, children, all kinds of sightseers. And that sunshine chases away criminals. "They don't want to be around people with cameras," he says.

This may not be the final skirmish between artists, taggers, business owners and the city. "You have to embrace the artists and entrepreneurs and small businesses," says Weaver. "You can't just slap fines on them."

Weaver and Duggan say the distinction between art and graffiti isn't that nuanced: If you don't have a building owner's permission to paint, you're a vandal, not an artist. And Deveri Gifford quickly got back to business, selling her distinctive omelets, along with Wednesday's special, a pumpkin, arugula and chevre quiche.

"We intend to demand a different standard, to create a different quality of life," Duggan said of his policy, a statement that applies equally well to the purpose of Gifford's carefully crafted quiches and Weaver's community murals.

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