"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Banksy tags Detroit

Banksy tags Detroit
Only people from Detroit care about about Detroit.  There's something very special about the place we call home, even when it's a deeply troubled city that makes national headlines for all the wrong reasons.   Well, I was reading about my hometown and came across a familiar name and his street art.  It seems Detroit came up on Banksy' radar as an urban cesspool worthy of a tag.  (Yes, only people from Detroit get to criticize Detroit).

It seems the Banksy tag was just the beginning of the controversy.  The Detroit Free Press originally reported this story in 2010: "Discovered last weekend, the stenciled work shows a forlorn boy holding a can of red paint next to the words “I remember when all this was trees.” But by Tuesday, artists from the 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios, a feisty grassroots group, had excavated the 7-by-8-foot, 1,500-pound cinder block wall with a masonry saw and forklift and moved the piece to their grounds near the foot of the Ambassador Bridge in southwest Detroit.

The move -- a guerilla act on top of Banksy’s initial guerilla act -- has sparked an intense debate about the nature of graffiti art, including complicated questions of meaning, legality, value and ownership. Some say the work should be protected and preserved at all costs. Others say that no one had a right to move it — and that the power and meaning of graffiti art is so intrinsic to its location that to relocate it is to kill it."

The Los Angeles Times  reported in 2012 that "the parties recently settled the dispute, and the gallery paid $2,500 for the wall art, estimated to be worth $100,000." 

 Given our studies and interest in street art,  I thought I would ask what you think of the Banksy controversy in Detroit.  I have mixed feelings about 555's action.  I believe the meaning of street art is  its context.  Will the "guerrilla act" of moving the work to "preserve it at all costs" become part of the context and thus a new part of the artwork's meaning?  Or, is removing the graffiti from its surroundings, valuing it at $100,000, and "preserving it" turning it into a neutral thing?

I'm also saddened because there doesn't seem to be anything else in Detroit to care about, much less, to preserve.  Why was this Banksy work deemed so worthy while neighborhoods, historical buildings, and city treasures sit in a state of decay?   Then again, I suppose you have to know the Motor City to understand the Motor City.

I did not intend to make a connection to Michael Gecan's article, but somehow, that's where I'm going.  Maybe I should ignore the media hype surrounding the Banksy art and look at  555's work.  Maybe they are fighting to save their hometown, a place that never gets much attention other than making the news for crime and corruption.  Perhaps 555 is just one small part of a larger network of organizers that I don't see because I only listen to media hype.  I'm blind to the current situation.

 Gecan's passion as a community organizer is evident in his writing, but I did not get the sense that East Brooklyn was his hometown, his touchstone, or his native context.  Maybe, like Banksy, Gecan's passion is in his work, where ever that may take him.  But, his organizers, the people he meets and gets to know, are connected heart and soul to their communities.  I wonder, then, how being disconnected from our communities (hometowns, families, roots) turns us into neutral things like the "stolen" art?   Do we loose interest in what's going on around us because we are out of our contexts, valuing our lives based on the superficial? 

I am left with only one final thought: I wonder if anyone is organizing a raid to return the Banksy work to it's original location?  I'll keep you posted.  Thanks.  Susan 


  1. Susan:

    I lived outside Detroit for several years and understand your perspective about your city. I think that the tag should have been left where it was. Once it left its original home, it lost some of its value. That tag could be used in many cities in America, and since Detroit has so many issues to deal with, taking a voice from the city and 'caging' it devalued it, IMHO.

    Joyce M.

    1. Hey Joyce: I love your phrasing "caging it devalued it." The 555 group opened their gallery in an old police station; artwork is displayed in former holding cells--caged, in a way? Perhaps Banksy would approve.

  2. I love this post, Susan, and the way to turn things over in your mind out loud. And, though you ostensibly seek an answer,we both know the answers are not nearly as important as the questions (or lets say, the answers are only as valid as the questions are valid). And in this case your questions are dy-no-mite. BTY,I also agree with you and Joyce that emplacement is key to graffiti. (and also the non-permanent nature of it--its supposed to be painted over, right? But also, given the irreverent tone of most "urbani interventionists, I also agree that Banksy might think the whole "supposed to be this or that" funny and likely does love the "controversy". So hats off to 555 for doing something to wake up America (for a second) to the Detroit double diss...

  3. Oh I so love the statement here "to move it is to kill it" when it comes to graffiti art! You know I adored this post Susan, for I have found a new love and appreciation through this class regarding graffiti. Before this semester, I did not understand the Discourse that surrounded the world where such text is found. I did not understand that tagging is so different from graffiti; and that the latter can carry such power. Graffiti can reach audiences that normal text cannot touch, draw attention to needed change, and provide perspective for those on the outside looking in. You also raise such valid points regarding who gets to decide what stays and what goes; but I must go back to your quote of "to move it is to kill it." I wonder who's driving the demand to tear it down. For if it is an effort to silence the message, then you are in fact killing it by removing it. But if you are removing it to bring about the change that the artist may seek through the message, are you instead validating the voice?


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.