You Say Graffiti, We Say…

...what's the difference between graffiti and art in public places?
Graffiti in alley next to Michigan Theater.

Graffiti in the alley next to Michigan Theater.

The alley next to Michigan Theater transformed pretty quickly over the summer from a colorful, artistically-coherent mural to a colorful collage of random graffiti – prompting Mr. Limpet to ask, “Where’s the Art?”

In early July, someone painted a swath of white over part of the mural called “Infinite Possibilities,” which had been created there in 1999. The Ann Arbor News ran an article about the incident, interviewing the artist, Katherine Tombeau Cost, who now lives in New Orleans. She said it had taken her five months to complete, but she wasn’t ticked off by the graffiti: “The thing about public art it is an exercise in letting go. You put it out there and you know it is not forever. I have to remind myself this isn’t my family room. That is the element of public art. It will be great and it will be gone.”

And now it’s really gone.

White paint covers most of the brick walls toward the front of the alley’s entrance, and those in turn are plastered with pictures, tags, scrawlings, the occasional expletive and what might pass for deep thoughts if you’re eight years old.

View of the alley next to Michigan Theater.

View of the alley next to Michigan Theater.

The Chronicle wondered what was in store for this space – were plans in the works to commission a new mural? As we were waiting to hear back from Russ Collins, executive director of the Michigan Theater, we came across a recent post on Jafabrit’s Art blog, which describes this very alley: “Spent a few days in Ann Arbor Michigan and found this wonderful graffiti alley off E. Liberty Street. I saw this pole in the side alley with the same colours as my knit tag and camo doll ( I named her ‘alley cat’) and it was just meant to be.” Photos ensue.

There’s much talk these days about public art – earlier this year, for example, the Ann Arbor city council approved permanent funding for the Commission on Art in Public Places. And you can certainly find officially sanctioned murals throughout the area – an underwater seascape on the alley next to the Huron Avenue Tios, a student-designed homage to the arts on the back of the Ann Arbor Art Center building, and the recently unveiled mural at the Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti. Michigan Peaceworks wants a public mural, too, and is looking for a good spot to put it.

But you can’t get more public (or collaborative, in an intentional/unintentional way) than the organic, visual cacaphony in that Michigan Theater alley. It isn’t so much each individual tag or image, but the cumulative layers of color and words and shapes that create this urban landscape.

Is it art? The Chronicle doesn’t have the critical chops to say. Is it provocative? Absolutely.

And, like other public art, it too will someday be gone. Take your photos while you can.

Graffiti in the alley next to Michigan Theater.

More alley graffiti next to Michigan Theater.


  1. September 27, 2008 at 4:31 pm | permalink

    [aside]: Would be nice if the images one sees when clicking an illustration were bigger than the thumbnail in the column.

  2. By Dave Askins
    September 28, 2008 at 8:49 am | permalink

    “Would be nice if the images one sees when clicking an illustration were bigger than the thumbnail in the column.”

    A higher priority is to consistently deliver images of sufficient quality that readers are more consistently left with the feeling of wanting a bigger version to look at.

    Although WordPress makes it straightforward to upload a larger image, which it then re-sizes for display (linking automatically to the larger file), when we tested it out, the result was images displayed in-line that we felt looked even worse than what we’re currently offering as “photography.”

    It might be worth it for us to at think about not including links on images if they lead simply to the same file. There’s an expectation associated with a cursor turning into a hand over an image that there’s a better resolution image lurking somewhere. And TAAC is currently not living up to that expectation.

  3. October 1, 2008 at 1:09 am | permalink

    I used the panel of the sun in the original mural for one of my photography projects in the fall of 2000 when I was a senior at Greenhills School.

    Tombeau’s words are wise and pragmatic, more so than my own thoughts the first time I walked through the alley after someone had ‘vandalized’ it. I’ll miss what was once there, but it is definitely interesting to see the alley evolve.