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Graffiti vs. Art

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A window spray-painted with an image of a man blowing smoke. When the light shines in the building, the graffiti on the windows paints the interior with color.

ABANDONED EXPRESSION: Graffiti bathes decay with shades of color

Artists' work on building is loved by some, a crime to others

August 13, 2004

BY CLEVE R. WOOTSON JR.

FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Southwest of Grand Circus Park sits one of Detroit's biggest canvasses for artists. Or it's one of the city's largest symbols of decay, depending on whom you ask.

The 18-story United Artists building at 150 Bagley was built in 1928 and housed a theater that, in its heyday, showcased the latest movies, including "Gone with the Wind" in 1939. By 1998, 70 years after opening, it was completely vacated, and it has been rotting from the inside ever since.

But when the sun creeps over the skyline and hits the building's windows, passersby and People Mover riders can see what makes the decaying building different, for better or worse.

Golds, greens and reds fill in dozens of bubble-shaped renditions of Mayan hieroglyphics -- one of a man blowing smoke, another of a hand cupped as if playing an invisible flute. Nearly every window of the building is covered -- an undertaking that, starting in the late 1990s, took nearly three years.

Though the art is bold, the artists remain in the shadows; their handiwork on the partially boarded up building is the only sign of their existence.

Tony Smith, a Detroit filmmaker who has explored Detroit's underground graffiti scene, says the paint on the windows was done by at least three taggers -- or graffiti artists. Their efforts appear in chronological order, starting on the first floor, with the most recent paintings on the top floors.

Windows on the lower stories are plastered with the names Coupe and Gram, two of the city's most prominent taggers. Going higher in the structure -- space where bustling business offices once occupied -- the graffiti varies substantially. That's where the representations of Mayan hieroglyphics begin. They're mostly faces, some seen from the front, others in profile.

Pictures of the inside of the building appear on Web sites, such as www.forgottendetroit.com, and show red and green light coming through window panes, bathing once white rooms in a rainbow of colors.

"When I look at the United Artists' thing, I always thought that it was a public art project and that it was funded," said Aaron Timlin, director of the Detroit Artists Market, an art gallery that showcases area artists. "They're adding some type of beauty for people to see while it's remaining abandoned. I think that's the great thing about art."

To Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, it's a blight that she wishes her office had enough resources to tackle. Worthy said she is against graffiti, but her office must first take care of larger, more pressing issues affecting people's lives.

Former county prosecutor Mike Duggan aggressively went after two out-of-state graffiti artists who came to Detroit to paint the town last summer. They served 60 days in jail, were fined and had to clean up 15 graffiti sites.

The Ilitch family bought the United Artists building in 1998, and it has been idle ever since. Efforts to bring it back to the glitz and glamour of its earlier days -- where it housed everything from nightclubs to offices to small shops -- have failed. And to Smith, it's Detroit's urban decay, not the spray paint, that is the problem.

"You got to clean up the stuff so people don't live this way," Smith said. "I feel really adamant about that. Until it's cleaned up, if someone wants to come paint on it and make it pretty in their way, so be it."

Contact CLEVE R. WOOTSON JR. at 313-223-4286 or [email protected]

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