SUBAN NUR COOLEY
THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 22nd, 2011
With a deep love for typography and an appreciation for the versatility and fast-drying nature of spray paint, it’s no surprise that Lansing-based artist, Sam deBourbon, is most known for his graffiti artwork. But how exactly was he placed on the city’s creative map in the first place?
Three years ago, deBourbon was caught doing something illegal under a bridge – creating urban graffiti art. The officer reprimanded him and deBourbon thought he was off the hook until he received a letter from the county courthouse in the mail. “That’s when things got really real. I got caught beneath a bridge in Meridian Township, which ironically got torn down and rebuilt the summer of my case. Kind of funny- you get caught for vandalizing something that’s getting torn down. I’m just glad I got the diversion program before it got cut. I got lucky.”
The diversion program enabled deBourbon as a first time offender to pay his dues through 40 hours of community service. With a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, it only made sense to him that he pay his debt using his artistic skill sets. “I started asking people to sign-off on my community service in return for a free mural. A few days later, after contacting Joe Manzella (then Manager of Regional programs for Leap,Inc.) the Deluxe Inn Graffiti event got planned. Eric Schertzing of the Ingham County Land Bank was generous enough to donate the site for everyone to paint.”
So in essence, deBourbon’s brush with the law helped bring to life one of Lansing’s most impactful urban art endeavors in recent history. Not only did the project have an on-going positive effect on Lansing’s REO Town district – spawning other graffiti inspired projects which benefitted the area aesthetically with more murals, and monetarily by funding local organizations – but deBourbon also found work and recognition through the project.
It was, for the most part, a totally community-driven event. People came from all walks of life to join in and paint. “After that event, the publicity alone helped me stay financially afloat while I was unemployed. Now, it’s nice to have an evening after work to go out and paint, and sometimes get paid. Double-win,” states deBourbon.
Although the overall experience was beneficial and positive to the region on a large scale, deBourbon doesn’t make light of the act he committed. “There’s the risk you take when you commit to spraying your art on property that is not legally yours to use. I am grateful for the program that made the Deluxe Inn Graffiti Event possible.”
The world may be their canvas but in 2011 street artists like Sam deBourbon are well aware of the legal consequences and the line that gets crossed when applying their art to the property of others without permission. On the other hand, deBourbon feels that when skilled artists are encouraged to put their work on the city’s walls, it leaves less room or ‘urban canvas’ for other obscene and/or gang-related style graffiti to sprout up on. “Murals can prevent criminal vandalism if they look cool enough.“
And what’s his take on the type of graffiti that more people would consider true vandalism of property versus the kind now being recognized as art? DeBourbon reminds us, “Art is incredibly subjective. Look at Duchamp’s “In Advance of a Broken Arm.“- it’s a flippin’ rusty shovel. And, it’s in a museum! People get mad at that for what it is. If I’m thinking something sucks painting-wise, it’s more along the lines of the process, craftsmanship, and finished product.”
The graffiti and urban art subculture can sometimes leave a bad taste in the mouths of both the public as well as those in the fine art world, but what deBourbon constructs can only be called art. He discovered his love for graffiti after a trip in 2003 with the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. “I was able to travel through France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. Europe is notorious for being completely covered in graffiti, and it showed,” says deBourbon. “I got to see a lot of cool things and places that made me think “This is cool and looks fun, I want to try this.” And so, he did.
But deBourbon isn’t only gifted artistically, his passions are diverse. In fact, before transferring to Kendall, he spent two years at Western Connecticut State University because the school offered both a music and meteorology (hence the passion for storm-chasing) program. The reason he transferred out: they were against him taking more math classes as a music major.
So, deBourbon pursues his first love – art, but still has his hands in the music and science worlds. “I do storm chase when granted the opportunity,” deBourbon laughs. “I like doing a lot of things just to keep my brain working. I still play music, with the Lansing Concert Band. I do web design during the day, and I paint graffiti as a therapeutic activity.”
Artistic talents aside, Michigan is lucky to have the likes of Sam deBourbon, a multi-layered individual with such diverse abilities who is now using them for the betterment of his community. Because Lansing was willing to work with Sam the Vandal and allow him to use his creative skills to repay his community service, the city is now reaping the benefits of having Sam the Creative Professional/Community Graffiti Artist not to mention Sam the Resident/Taxpayer on speed-dial, beautifying different areas of the city (with permission AND pay!).