Meet 3 Incredible Street Artists Reinventing Detroit (Photos)

street artists

A vibrant downtown and Midtown have made Detroit cool again, but the spotlight belongs to the street artists.

If you haven’t heard, the streets of Detroit are changing. And the street artists of the city are playing their part in that evolving narrative.

A lot of it has to do with a new mayor, new businesses, new roads, a rediscovery of “cool” — all great possibilities, but you can also look at the city’s art scene. The art scene in Detroit has always been a part of the Motor City’s DNA sequence. Today that connection is more obvious as street artists under 40 remake Detroit in their own image.

In places like the Eastern Market (a popular gathering spot for fresh produce and live music) and the Grand River Creative Corridor (GCC) and all around the city, the limitless canvas of buildings is being touched — and retouched — by the artist’s paintbrush, big and small. These artists come from all types of disciplines, but they have each tried their hand at street art, for a time becoming street artists with a message.

More often than not, they stumbled into street art but ultimately embraced the medium.

The Uncommon Road to Murals

Ndubisi - street artistsNdubisi Okoye’s mural for Our/Detroit was his first foray into street art. Courtesy of Ndubisi Okoye.

Ndubisi Okoye, an art director, has been a Detroiter since the age of 10, when he moved from Raleigh, North Carolina, with his grandparents.

They kept him around art, and Okoye spent many hours sketching. He also learned the value of being a business owner.

“My grandmother was a master seamstress and a director of a day care,” Okoye says. “My grandfather was a master carpenter. They were very entrepreneurial and very creative. They always encouraged that kind of lifestyle for me.”

After graduating from Cass Technical High School, Okoye attended the College for Creative Studies (CCS). This provided a solid foundation for formal training, and he also stayed tapped into the art community.

The way Okoye sees it, Detroit art — especially street art and street artists — have always been around. It’s just taken the current spotlight on the city for many people to have noticed. He has a love-hate relationship with the word commonly used for Detroit: resurgence.

As far as Okoye’s concerned, creativity has always been a staple of the city.

Wall Art - street artistsCourtesy of Ndubisi Okoye.

“I like that a lot more people are coming to Detroit, but I don’t like how it’s being branded as a resurgence,” Okoye says. “There’s a lot more businesses, [but] the culture’s been here the entire time.”

One difference, he notes, is how the art scene is more youth-centered and energetic. At 24, Okoye has worked in various mediums and considers himself a “multidisciplinary creative.” This means he can toggle between different mediums and artistic styles with ease.

“A lot of people my age don’t stick to one title,” Okoye says. “We do a lot of different things.”

Ndubisi_GodIsAlmighty - street artistsCourtesy of Ndubisi Okoye.

And that includes murals. Although he didn’t know it at the time, he was going to transition to making art on buildings. This happened when Our/Detroit, a business famous for its vodka, put out a call for artists. Okoye’s friend had suggested he enter the competition. After a fierce Facebook voting rally, Okoye got the job. He became a street artist.

The biggest challenge with painting murals is control, he says. “With murals, you never know what’s going to happen. You can run out of paint. It [can start] raining. That makes it exciting at the same time.”

Okoye considers murals his contribution to the community. He plans to stay in Detroit for the long haul. “Building a company…that would be cool — eventually,” he says.

Actively Living ‘The Why’

Sydney - street artistsSydney James with one of her artistic expressions. Courtesy of Sydney James.

Like Okoye, Sydney James didn’t start out as a street artist. That came later. While she too was an alum of Cass Tech and CCS, James was an illustrator and commercial artist by training.

Community projects eventually led her to street art. The medium might change, but the artistic aesthetic remains unchanged for her.

“I treat every piece exactly the same,” James says. “I try to make sure my style is recognizable. And I want every painting that I do, whether it’s on a wall or on a canvas, to be painted like I mean it. If I agree to do any work, whether it’s a $50 job or a $50,000 job, the quality is going to be the same. It’s going to look like fine art on a wall.”

James, 37, also considers the Detroit art scene its own Surrealist Movement, a healthy competition that keeps the street artists motivated. They hang out together around Detroit, inspiring one another to push the boundaries of art.

Sydney - street artistsCourtesy of Sydney James.

“It’s not just visual artists but writers too,” James says. “It’s really interesting. We just find each other. We stick together. It’s love. It’s not what people would think.”

Upcoming projects include a mural inside a Detroit plant and a piece in New York. Doing murals actually takes less time, she adds, because you’re using your whole arm instead of your hand. Her greatest artistic challenge, though, was transitioning from illustration to fine art.

Sydney_guyonwall - street artistsCourtesy of Sydney James.

But there’s an even bigger challenge: revealing herself through her artwork, making it more personal, revelatory. She used to paint just to paint. Now she’s finding out the why and actively living the why.

“Now I’m inviting people all the way into my world,” James says. “If it’s commercial, it’s not yours anyway. Someone else owns it. If there’s ever a discussion about Detroit art, I want to be at the top of the list.”

Painting for Sanity

Michelle - street artistsNew Yorker Michelle Tanguay has made Detroit her adopted home. Courtesy of Michelle Tanguay.

Although the Detroit street artist scene is highly localized, the city is also being reimagined from the outside in. New York native Michelle Tanguay has made Detroit her home for more than a decade. The 28-year-old fine artist has found her own contribution to the city.

“The people in the art scene is what excites me,” Tanguay says. “Everyone is so supportive and we are all friends. The only thing that has changed is that it has expanded and grown. It’s definitely a shared community. I go to as many art shows as I can and visit artists’ studios to stay connected.”

Michelle - street artistsCourtesy of Michelle Tanguay.

Tanguay’s experience is varied. “I wouldn’t consider myself a street artist,” she says. “I’ve only completed one mural. I make art because it’s all I know how to do, and painting in my studio keeps me sane. Money…exposure…those things are nice, but have never been my motivation at all.”

Painting the mural was a challenge, because of not so much the size but the deadline itself.

“I faced a few challenges with the mural I did. The greatest challenge was time,” Tanguay says. “I had five days to complete the largest painting I’ve ever done. It was fun but a challenge.”

MichelleLollypopLick - street artistsCourtesy of Michelle Tanguay.

Right now Tanguay’s working on a large painting in her studio. She calls it “a passion project” and something different from what people are used to seeing her create.

“One of the greatest challenges is that there is no rule book on how to be an artist,” Tanguay says. “There is no right way, and what works for one person may not work for another, so finding the correct path to take has been a challenge, and I am still trying to figure that out. I plan to stay in Detroit and to just keep on painting.” end




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