WRITER | JEANINE MATLOW
PHOTO | SOTIR DAVIDHI
Art sparks conversations wherever it goes, like the outdoor murals found around the Great Lakes State and beyond. From graffiti art and other colorful images in urban areas like Eastern Market in Detroit to small-town tourist stops that offer plenty of photo opportunities, this unique form of expression has come to enhance the natural landscape in a unique way.
“Across the state, especially in cities like Detroit, there are many incredible muralists who have been spreading art locally as well as nationally and internationally. They are seasoned professionals sharing their talents and leveraging the streets of those cities as their canvases,” says Tricia Binder, co-founder and president of Muros, an art activation agency based in Chicago.
“Outdoor art is, by nature, public art. It provides an incredible opportunity for artists to share their work with a much broader range of people with various backgrounds and stories. Public art has the ability to take some of the stigma and ‘status’ that can be felt in galleries and really democratizes the medium for a wider audience to enjoy. It’s interesting, it’s bright, and it’s very often localized and therefore relatable.”
As she explains, art provides a language in which people can express their thoughts and ideas about everything, from social justice causes to politics and beyond. “There’s so much vibrancy, color, storytelling, and beauty from public art,” she says. “These incredible works, from portraiture to abstract, can uplift any space and draw people who are looking for beautiful images and to create ‘selfie’ moments to share across their networks.”
Murals that send an uplifting message can create a sense of community. Sotir Davidhi, artist/muralist and owner of Mural by Design LLC in Grand Rapids, recalls reading an article about the high crime rate in Philadelphia that made people afraid to go out. The healing power of murals converted the city into a place filled with positive energy where residents began to feel hopeful.
Companies often contact Davidhi when they want a custom logo on a building, like a coffee shop in Grand Rapids that was under new ownership. In this case, he suggested adding a mural and the logo to help promote their business. After both were completed, he learned that sales had doubled at that location.
“Color has tremendous power,” he says. “People don’t understand why they feel the way they feel, but they certainly feel the color.” His outdoor murals do more than highlight a particular business. “They are meant to feel like and belong to their environment,” he adds. “They’re not just something on the walls. They blend with the surrounding space and the neighborhood.”
For the Lake Shore Antiques Mall in West Olive, Davidhi had to get creative. “With people driving on Route 31, they have a fraction of a second to send a message to those who are driving by,” he says. A themed mural makes a statement with an old car, an hourglass, and a gramophone that creates a parade of antique objects on the corrugated wall.
At the former Finley’s Grill & Smokehouse in Jackson, he brought the inside out with a lifelike mural that shows patrons seated at tables. Another detail depicts the former manager walking his dog by the smoker that paid tribute to the meats featured on the menu. These realistic images would make anyone do a double-take.
With any mural, placement is important. This is especially true for exterior art that has the potential to attract a lot of attention. Davidhi starts by learning what the business is about before finding the right location on the building or any other outdoor structure. “It’s about transforming that wall and giving it a positive vibe,” he says. “You want people to see the mural, and you don’t want them to move their eyes away. Anyone who sees it will have some reaction.”
One of his murals on two sides of a walk-in cooler at The Score Restaurant & Sports Bar in Grand Rapids shows motorcycles in a scene that simulates the outdoor space in season. “Who doesn’t like beautiful weather or beautiful scenery? That’s why people go to the park,” says Davidhi. “With murals, you can create a different energy to give a break from what is happening in the world.”
Customization is part of the charm. “Murals are beautiful,” he says. “It’s a huge canvas, and they can go anywhere.”