GRAFFITI ART SERVES AS OUTLET
THURSDAY NOVEMBER 10th, 2011
In the 1980s, people in the Czech Republic started painting John Lennon lyrics on a concrete wall in a public space as a means to communicate justice and social change. The wall survived Communist suppression in the 1980s and has since been a moving piece of art activism.
Something similar is happening in Southwest Detroit. In 2004, community activist Erik Howard, 32, a group of young artists that identify themselves as Expressions, service providers and neighbors informally started The Alley Project (TAP), a community space that supports artistic expression, specifically graffiti or as Howard prefers to call it: “aerosol art.”
“On the back of my garage there was a bunch of graffiti and obscenities,” said Howard who lives in the TAP neighborhood, which is flanked by Carson and Pitt Streets. “I thought, I can either keep painting over this or let the kids paint over it.”
Howard’s neighbor agreed with his take on garage graffiti and both granted neighborhood kids permission to use their garages as a canvas. Howard’s aunt, who also lives in the neighborhood, and another neighbor followed suit.
“Our approach was to attract young people who were already involved in it (graffiti) to help reduce their legal and physical risk,” Howard said. “They wanted a place where they could paint and there was nothing like that. This (TAP) really breaks stereotypes and creates relationship building and social capital.”
Eventually, an estimated 35 to 50 kids were painting and repainting the sides of the garages every month. The space-to-user ratio became unsustainable so individuals involved with the project started looking for additional space.
In 2008, GrafikJam, which is part of Young Nation, a group of kids and mentors that promote activities like TAP, received an $8,000 grant from the Skillman Foundation to create artists workshops in the alley. In 2010, TAP got a major boost from Community + Public Arts Detroit, which granted Youth Nation $38,000 toward the project. The space opened in July at 9233 Avis St. and includes a studio and exhibition space.
“As a result we have this beautiful environment that’s engaging to young and old, artists and non-artists, great students and poor students, young people involved in exploitative ventures and young people that are not,” Howard said. “We have gardens and benches. It’s done an extraordinary amount of good for the community with a relatively small amount of money.”
For a few years the ‘Lennon wall’ was a catalyst for rattling the cages of authority, something Young Nation and TAP certainly are not. When Howard started conceptualizing what would eventually become Young Nation, he didn’t want to rattle, he wanted to unite.
Howard grew up on Carson and Pitt Streets in southwest Detroit, moved to Wyandotte for part of high school, down to Spring Arbor to attend Spring Arbor University and back to southwest Detroit after college. His moves taught him that not everyone is open to other cultures. It also made him realize that many of those who are open to other cultures, lack exposure to those cultures.
Missing urban environments while studying at Spring Arbor, Howard spent a semester in Los Angeles in 1998. To quell his homesickness, he started collecting articles about the struggles and progress in southwest Detroit. He put them in a notebook titled “Inside Southwest Detroit.” When he returned to Spring Arbor, he started a campus ministry, Hands on Detroit whose members prayed for southwest Detroit and got involved in community projects.
Next semester, he used the notebook, community resources and a photography course to launch Inside Southwest Detroit, a website designed to “give people visual access to the neighborhood” and breakdown stereotypes about southwest Detroit.
In 2002, he started Expressions, a youth group that was a response to the social conditions in the neighborhood. Expressions offered alternative activities to neighborhood kids, activities they would actually participate in. They started a lowrider club, hosting cruise nights that attracted riders, local youth and community members.
“We used the attention we got from the cars to build relationships with youth and through those relationships with youth we did an exploration of their passions and used those motivators toward personal development,” Howard said.
As the mentoring network grew and they developed relationships with the kids, they learned more about street art and the fascination it held with area youth. Expressions found a safe, legal way to let kids act on that passion by creating TAP. Not only do the kids get a safe place to practice their art, they also have access to experienced, professional artists and art workshops.
“A lot of people in southwest Detroit are already involved with, or interested in, street art,” Howard said. “We used it to attract young people and expose them to a wider world of art. That’s how we used it as a mentoring tool. It already has appeal. It’s already culturally relevant to the youth, and so it’s kind of us coming to them, instead of making them come to us.”
2012: Social Change Though Media
All of the projects that evolved out of the Expressions group now fall under the umbrella of Young Nation, which seeks to promote initiatives like GraffikArt, groups like Expressions and projects like TAP.
“We believe that when you combine a cultural and developmental competency that the result is more than the sum of its parts,” Howard said of Young Nation. “We try to inspire things without taking it by coercion or power.”
Though positive social change has always been a goal of Young Nation’s, in 2012 the group will ramp up its efforts to give kids the tools to use media to create “positive social epidemics.”
“We want to build their skills by engaging them in their passions and help them see where their passions intersect with community needs,” Howard said.
This could include a physical expansion, though Howard said that will depend on the community’s needs. Young Nation participants are also collaborating with Bronzeville, a southside Chicago neighborhood interested in doing something similar to Young Nation.
Though most Young Nation projects require little capital, the group hopes to secure funding in 2012 for human capital. Next steps include obtaining funds for a full-time director and the equivalent of approximately two full-time staff.
“The Alley Project is a place and a lot people who live on the street are using it on a regular basis,” Howard said. “It used to be two empty lots and grass but now it’s occupied. It’s done a lot to change what was sometimes an unfriendly environment.”