Detroit: Graffiti

Michigan Central Station, Detroit

Detroit must be some kind of graffiti artist heaven — there are almost endless amounts of deserted, empty walls across the city in neglected streets and abandoned factories and buildings, and a City government that must have much bigger priorities for its limited resources.

I saw tons of graffiti pieces when I visited the city recently, but I was a little disappointed with the wall-based graffiti pieces — there was not a lot that was remarkable, compared to what I am used to seeing in parts of Toronto. I wonder if maybe the fact that it’s so easy means that people don’t feel the need to try as hard.

On the other hand, Detroit has one thing other cities don’t have — entire high-rise buildings that are deserted — and it has developed to a high art a form of graffiti that uses the windows of buildings.

Lafayette Building, Detroit

This is the Lafayette Building in downtown Detroit. It’s completely deserted (note the trees growing on the roof), and the windows are almost completely decorated with graffiti, often creating an overall effect across multiple windows. Here are some closeups.

The grasshopper image was also created in another, particularly gorgeous deserted building (Detroit has spectacular tops of buildings):

A similar window-graffiti technique was used in the Russell Industrial Center, a huge old factory now used for studios, workshops and small industry.

There were some good pieces of more conventional wall graffiti, too. The best by far was a really small piece (I think it’s a stencil) at the base of a pillar in the deserted Michigan Central Station (pictured at the top of this post), a piece that makes delicate use of the colour of the stone it is on to create an image of the station’s majestic windows in their prime.

I was also amused at this message in the station’s dark, crumbling underground section. I’m not sure if the “hard hat” stencil was once a genuine official message.

At the Russell Industrial Center, we attended a late-night “art-off”, a competition by mural painters to decorate the new office for an urban agriculture organization (needless to say, there is a lot of urban agriculture going on in Detroit’s abandoned lands), each artist painting a different panel.

Most of the murals were pretty conventional, but this more-than-life-size stencil-style one stood out (the words are “City Fresh”):

I also liked this detail from a “killer-tomato” themed piece.

One of the most striking murals I saw was a huge official one for the Eastern Farmers’ Market, with a cow made up of fruit and vegetables.

Another style of graffiti was a poster campaign using an iconic nineteenth-century reforming Mayor of Detroit, Hazen S. Pingree. This one was on the deserted old Detroit Free Press building.

Here is a poster from the same series on the statue of the man himself.

Re-elect Pingree

All photos by Dylan Reid


  1. I just returned from an Urbanex into the Michigan Central Station and I can say the graffiti was politically charged, creative, bold with colour, and reflected the immediate environment upon which it was created.

    Detroit street art has a definite character, different from Toronto’s sparse gang tagging and cautious use of space.

    You can see some of our pix on our Flickr page, and we shot HD footage on Steadicam that looks amazing. I feel we treated the space with respect, and hope to share it with everyone soon.

  2. Wish I was in Detroit for DEMF right now. Definitely the best time to visit the city – the greatly increased foot traffic gives you a glimpse in to what Detroit might have been like before the riots.

  3. I just got back from DEMF last night. I was staying at the Westin right beside the Lafayette Building, and was pondering the odd graffiti within as well.

    No matter how many times I visit “The D” I always am amazed by the state of the downtown core.

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