Art vs. Vandalism: Street art from Ann Arbor and Detroit


Staff Writer


A picture is worth a thousand words, and street art is a platform artists are using to show free speech with a  whole other magnitude of expression. After using a strong adhesive to tage private property with posters in Detroit, infamous “Obey” street artist Shepard Fairey is facing one count of malicious destruction of a building at the cost of $20,000 or more, which is a 10-year felony in itself.

He is also being charged with two counts of malicious destruction of a railroad bridge, which are each four-year felonies. The felony charges sparked an array of reactions over publicly-displayed street art in Ann Arbor and Detroit. The Voice asked business owners, college instructors, artists and students to see where they stand on the issue.

The business owner:

Thomas Ulch II, an Ann Arbor photography business owner and Eastern Michigan University instructor, has photos of street art from around the world in his book of photography, “Bare Naked Travel.”

“I have photos of street art from somewhere around 30 countries,” Ulch said. “In an industrial setting like Detroit, where it’s pretty gray and empty, to add a touch of color of life is a good thing,”

“It’s art. It is art, but do I choose to have it on a piece of property that I own is what’s important,” Ulch said.

Ulch, who owns property in Ann Arbor, said he should get to decide what his building looks like, and not have to display the beliefs of someone else.

“From the authorities’ standpoint, they don’t know ‘how’ to define art, so they lump it all together — kids who tag with artists who make 25-story murals,” Ulch said. “So, I can see where law enforcement would have difficulty.”

“I believe the authorities went after Fairey so hard because he is so well known and it is a high profile case. In this particular instance, a felony charge is ridiculous. It is political bullshit,” Ulch said.

“If you’re taking over someone else’s space to do your stuff, that’s wrong. If the same guy were to come to me and had said he wanted to do this mural on my building, my response would have been, ‘awesome, let’s do it’.”

“For me, there’s a difference between ‘art’ and ‘tagging,’ you shouldn’t be (maliciously) scribbling o a wall,” he said. “I have friends who still tag and are very stylized, so inside their community they are well respected.”

“If there’s a wholeness to the piece, even if I don’t like the style or subject matter, I consider it art, and then what I do is take it to the next level and incorporate models into the existing background of the piece,” Ulch said of his photos taken around Detroit.

Mediums may vary for street art, from paint, to tile, to chalk, with life expectancies of each ranging from minutes to years, depending on the preservation. The ever-changing flow is the heart of the movement, Ulch said.

“His work is spectacular,” he said of chalk art done by artist David Zinn. It can be seen around Ann Arbor during periods of good weather.

The college instructor:

Elisabeth Thoburn, a Washtenaw Community College art and humanities instructor, said the categorization of street art can be done with their differences in mind: the quality, size, location and whether it is solicited or not.

“There are these different levels; I wouldn’t say that size equals quality, and what to me is vandalism is when you invade private space,” Thoburn said. “When people just walk through the streets and there is just one row of privately-owned apartment homes and they are all spray painted along the bottom, I’d condemn it.”

Location is key to validity, “But it’s a fine line, and a lawyer may see it even finer than I do,” she said.

“When under a bridge, where the city may own that, it is less vandalism than on private home or business owners’ property,” said Thoburn. “In a lot of these instances, the artists are doing a great job at taking a dead space that no one is looking at and making it interesting.”

The student:

Moussa Conde, a 25-year-old business major from Ann Arbor, said most forms of street art art understood in places like Taiwan, and France, or in Ann Arbor’s dedicated graffiti alley, but warns to not cross over into unauthorized tagging of businesses’ buildings or doors if you don’t want your work to be considered vandalism.

“It’s a waste of taxpayers money,” said Sarah Veahosky, a WCC general education studies student of Ann Arbor, about receiving prison time for street art.

“I drive past it, but I never paid attention to it,” Conde said of the street art around Ann Arbor.

Veahosky has recognized some pieces from Detroit and Ann Arbor areas. The multi-story murals are the most eye-catching says the artist, who sells her hand-drawn work via email.

“I never knew there was so much street art everywhere, Veahosky said, surprised of the alleyways weaving throughout Ann Arbor. Transferring to the University of Michigan in the future, Veahosky said she is now more aware of Ann Arbor’s street art than ever before and plans to go exploring.

Heading north on Fourth Avenue, just north of the intersection of Washington Street, a multi-panel mosaic tile mural is displayed along a building.

“It’s glass, but it’s grungy like the rest, it looks like it goes with it, “Veahosky said, comparing it to the other street art in town.

The artist:

“Originally, I just wanted to be outside on a nice day, and chalk let me do that while still feeling like I was creating art. Sie then, I’ve become addicted to the ephemerality of it,” said David Zinn, a chalk artist who has work that pops up throughout Ann Arbor.

Zinn’s work is magnificent, said Phybr, a Detroit street artist. “I think it’s great, and to me, that’s how street art and graffiti are to begin with. They are never permanent so that adds the allure and luster of enjoying it while it lasts.” Phybr’s work can be seen around the city. Sometimes, his ‘gems’ are happily buried in the most surprising places.



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