What would martians think if they landed in Detroit?
In the mind of artist Philip Lauri, the otherworldly creatures see a city some people cannot. Gardens instead of blight. Buildings instead of rubble. Redemption instead of resentment.
The result is a highly amusing, delightfully straightforward yet insightful mural at the southwest corner of Gratiot Avenue and Dubois just off Alfred in Detroit. In it, a gang of pink martians jump about, declaring, “DETROIT LIVES!”
Art can have gravitas. But it also can have a giggle.
And that's all Lauri really wants from his mural, painted this past summer on the side of a storage facility for a pickled herring company. (The building contains herring jars and sausage casings for another nearby company; I'm not making this up.)
He wants a few drivers zooming by to take a second glance. To ponder the phrase, “Detroit Lives!” and whether it might be true.
After all, a mural that depicts a bunch of high-fiving, fist-pumping martians probably is the last thing the average Gratiot Avenue commuter expects to see cruising to the city.
Let's take a step back. First, a little about Detroit Lives! itself. Yes, there is a method to the madness. Lauri created the group as a way to spread a good word about Detroit. It has projects, like the mural, and an upcoming film, which highlights the art scene and good people around the city. It has gone through editing, and Lauri is working on getting a local screening up.
Detroit Lives! is a partner with the Georgia Street Community Garden on Georgia at Van Dyke and Gratiot, helping Mark “Cub” Covington improve the area – planting, clearing out areas for a fruit orchard and eventually installing a wall documenting the garden's beginnings.
Lauri and fellow artisans also created a series of handmade prints, photography and apparel with the Detroit Lives! slogan on them – a way for people to show their colors, so to speak.
“Quite simply, DL! aims to tell a good story about Detroit – whether it's something you read, wear or participate in,” Lauri said.
On to the mural. The herring company belongs to Phil Sack, owner of Sea Fare Foods and father of Mike Sack, Lauri's roommate. The city had fined Phil Sack for graffiti on the building, and he had to cover it up. Lauri asked if he could do the honors. After the alien drawing got Phil's approval, the painting began in earnest. He started in June and finished in August.
During his painting, a few regular visitors stopped by. There was Rocko, who peddles at the nearby gas station. Charlie is the neighborhood security guy who protects the surrounding buildings.
At first, Charlie was doubtful. He saw the green background, the little pink bodies, then an outline of the city. The last thing Lauri painted was the text.
“He was all kinds of excited,” Lauri said of Charlie's reaction. “He said, ‘Aw, shit. Now I get it!'”
Lauri had a few painting parties along the way, bringing in other 20something friends to help. They would grill some Koegel Viennas and fill in a few more aliens on the wall. The vacant lot next to the mural site became a place to sit and contemplate Detroit. It was summer. The weather was perfect. There was even a nearby apple tree to offer shade and a place to rest your back.
So how does a Michigan State University graduate with a degree in supply chain management know about aliens? Not much. But when he settled in Detroit, he became one of the city's largest boosters. He started DETROIT LIVES! As a media and design collective whose aim it is to spread a positive message about the city and its people.
There are great things in Detroit – even though the larger population of North America…hell, the world…might not think so.
In Lauri's own words:
“There are so many projects and people who truly believe in this town. … They are out there: from Arthur's Tour de Hood to Mark Covington's Georgia Street Collective to the Yes Farm to The Lot to the Shack and Woodbridge Records. We could talk over coffee about all this stuff for days. Yet we consistently get immersed in the negative. I just think there is more to it than that, ultimately a city capable of real growth and transformation. Most importantly, there are plenty of people, myself included, that genuinely believe this and are doing things to make that happen.”
To meet Lauri and other local artists, check out the upcoming Detroit Urban Craft Fair, which is from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 21 at the newly renovated Majestic Theater. (I'll be blogging more about the craft fair closer to that date).