Street Artist Shepard Fairey Tackles Detroit

After billionaire landlord Dan Gilbert commissioned a mural, less-legal works in Fairey's style began showing up around the city. Detroit's case against the artist brings gentrification's ironies into focus.

1 minute read

September 22, 2015, 2:00 PM PDT

By Philip Rojc @PhilipRojc

Shepard Fairey

L. Kragt Bakker / Shutterstock

Detroit has moved to prosecute Shepard Fairey, the street artist behind "the much-imitated 'Hope' poster that came to symbolize Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, and the 'Obey' series that features the enigmatic face of the wrestler Andre the Giant."

Invited to the city by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, Fairey "may not have been willing to color entirely within the lines. When he came to Detroit to do the job, several other works in his signature style showed up wheat-pasted around town [...] Now the city is prosecuting the artist on felony charges of malicious destruction of property, claiming that he caused as much as $30,000 in damage."

Fairey's arrest evokes a certain irony. Gentrifying developers "want neighborhoods to be 'colorful' and 'edgy,' with exciting 'street culture' that draws younger consumers to spend dollars in cafes and bars and boutiques—and ultimately to settle down in pricy loft-style apartments, fattening the tax rolls."

But a disconnect remains between "municipal dreams of a city where artists drive economic growth in an orderly, controlled way, and the reality of how artists see the world—or how they want to be seen." Is street art okay in a city like Detroit? Does graffiti attract the "wrong" people—or the right ones? These questions remain unanswered.

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