A Summer Finding Art in Detroit

Jan 16, 2024 | NEA Lab | 0 comments

By Shreya Sampath and Mary C. Byron, BA.

Shreya Sampath, a U-M undergraduate student studying Architecture, is a research assistant at the NEA Lab. She spent the Summer of 2023 documenting artworks in Detroit for the lab’s public art database, and in this post she shares her experiences. 

Detroit is a large city. One of the largest cities in the country, in fact, with over 600,000 residents living in an area 139 square miles, roughly six times the square mileage of Manhattan. It’s hard for one human, in a short period of time, to travel throughout every single corner, alleyway, and street that makes up Detroit. Most visitors will only see the main areas of the city; the Renaissance Center, River Walk, and Ford Field area. I, however, had the opportunity to really explore Detroit – past the skyline that everyone can see at first glance. I was able to adventure through the inner areas, and only through these explorations could I really see the art that Detroit holds at its core. 

“Both Immigrant and Not (Rio Grande)” by Pete Bernal “Perez” (2020) CityWalls Program. Image credit to NEA Lab (2023).  [Alt text A mural of a native man crossing a river in a canoe with monarch butterflies overhead]

Detroit murals are famous for their symbolic messages, such as “Both Immigrant and Not (Rio Grande)” by Pete Bernal “Perez” which uses monarch butterflies along with indigenous peoples crossing the Rio Grande to emphasize that travel and migration have been a way of life for many people of all cultures and that Detroit is a city of immigrants. The murals in Detroit scream at you in the most clever and creative ways possible. Not only that but it feels like there is some sort of mural or art around each corner of the city waiting to be discovered. Across residential neighborhoods, commercial and industrial sites, and plastered across any street side you are likely to find someone’s art. It’s impossible to get an accurate number of how many murals the entire city holds: while new ones are being created almost constantly, some were finished a few short months ago, and others have been there for decades. Seeing the evolution of public artwork in Detroit is mesmerizing, but even more intriguing is the consistent level of creativity and call to action each mural possesses, from topics like community organizing and environmental justice to recognition and highlighting of the city’s cultural and economic history. I’ve found in my explorations, that, once you find one piece of art in Detroit, you will keep finding more.

Every week, I would drive into the city with a predetermined destination or two – a certain street corner where I knew a specific piece of art should be. I always assumed my endeavors for that day would take thirty minutes to an hour. Little did I realize that Detroit art would consume me each time I visited, tempting me to expand out from whichever street I had intended to visit. My initial assumption was correct, to visit and document each piece of art took around half an hour. However, as I kept driving, I kept noticing other artworks. Thirty minutes turned into two hours as I made stop after stop to admire a mural I hadn’t recognized before. My notes app and camera roll during this process were expansive and messy, documenting ten more street corners and fifteen extra photos that I hadn’t originally planned for.

I would spend multiple hours a week letting the art take me wherever it lived in Detroit, and that still wasn’t enough to cover even a fraction of the city. I think about these trips I made through the lens of a detective, and I hope to discover more about the art in Detroit with the context of firearm injury and how much art can affect this within Detroit’s general public as much as art has affected me throughout my life.