Nov 17, 2023 - News

Detroit artists question international downtown mural project

A mural by artist Hera celebrating gender equality on the back of Detroit's Hotel Indigo, 1020 Washington Blvd.

A mural by artist Hera celebrating gender equality on the back of Hotel Indigo, 1020 Washington Blvd. Photos: Joe Guillen/Axios

A downtown mural project to welcome visitors here for next year's NFL Draft might not continue after receiving criticism for paying substandard wages and excluding local artists.

Why it matters: Amid a recent boom in celebrated murals across Detroit, the controversy is empowering local artists to push for better pay and a more transparent process for selecting who performs such work for the city, Outlier reported.

  • The city has increasingly embraced street art in recent years through its City Walls program after a harsh crackdown on graffiti that started during Mayor Mike Duggan's first term and left some artists skeptical of city art programs.

State of play: A half-dozen artists from around the world arrived last month to create massive murals on a handful of downtown buildings that would commence the draft.

  • The city agreed to contribute $140,000 to the project, known as "Be The Change." It also involved a global nonprofit, Street Art for Mankind, and the Downtown Detroit Partnership.
  • The project's second phase was supposed to involve Detroit artists in April, the same month as the NFL Draft, but city officials say those plans are now in doubt.

What they're saying: "A second phase is not certain at this point because of the confusion involved in phase one," Conrad Mallett, the city's corporation counsel, told Axios in a statement.

  • The city's contribution to the project still needs City Council approval. If that happens, Mallett said phase two might proceed with local artists.

The other side: "There was never an opportunity for a local artist to work on this," Detroit artist Sydney James told Outlier. "None of us knew about it."

  • James, who created the Blkout Walls Festival, said projects like this could reduce artists' future wages. "Be The Change" muralists received $2-$3 per square foot — well short of the $15 per square foot muralists need to make money after expenses.

Between the lines: The new murals' representation of Detroit is under debate. One shows a girl holding a microphone. The Statue of Liberty is the dominant image of another.

  • Local artist Bakpak Durden is the subject of one of the murals. He praised the artist — Smug, of Australia — but also told Outlier that the project's wages and local awareness should've been better.

What we're watching: Local artists are now crafting a list of demands to the city for future commissions.

The bottom line: "When a freeway gets repaved, the city puts that job out to bid," James told Outlier. "Mural work is skilled, physical labor, and we want it to be the same way for us."

Nomad Clan's mural at 2115 Cass Ave. in Detroit to inspire climate action.
Nomad Clan's mural at 2115 Cass Ave. to inspire climate action.

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