“I painted him as a monument”: Public Art as Protest in Detroit

This essay is my submission for Festival CHAT 2020. I’m very grateful to the organizers for hosting this phenomenal virtual event and giving us a way to connect and celebrate contemporary and historical archaeology in these difficult times.


In this photo essay, I document and discuss three recent public art installations made in protest of police brutality against African Americans in Detroit, Michigan. These works of art—which range from informal yard signs to large-scale installations and commissioned works—connect Detroit to national discourse around police brutality by memorializing and honoring Black Detroiters killed by police alongside other, more recent victims of police violence elsewhere in the United States. They are often in conversation with other public memorials in the city, past and present, and they express collective grief, anger, support, exhaustion, and hope and encouragement for the future.

I will examine how these recent public works of art engage with Detroit’s legacy of racism and police brutality against Black residents. What does it mean to, as one artist puts it, paint someone not as a person, but as a monument? And finally, how do these issues relate to and intersect with other ongoing forms of violence against Black residents, such as the disinvestment in and wide-scale demolition of Black neighborhoods and gentrification?

Rather than being a definitive

Positionality Statement

My perspective on recent anti-racist protest art in Detroit is influenced by my background, experiences, and privilege as a white person, an anthropologist, and a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve lived in Metro Detroit for 5 years and carried out my doctoral dissertation project here. My research focuses on urban blight and architectural salvage practices, which contribute to and are a result of the destabilization and erasure of Detroit’s predominantly African American communities via the long-term processes of municipal disinvestment, foreclosure, and demolition.

Public Art in Detroit

Art and artist communities are part of recent debates about gentrification and displacement in Detroit. Artists have moved into and transformed areas with high levels of vacancy, drawing new residents and real estate developers, only to be evicted and displaced as property values and rents in these areas increase. Recent examples of this include the eviction of the artist community 4731 Grand River (established in 2000) last year (Kurth 2020) and the closure of the Russell Industrial Center, a long-time artist community, over building safety concerns.

Though Detroit has a long, rich history of embracing and supporting public art, present-day city officials have a complicated and contentious relationship with it. Detroit has a zero tolerance policy towards graffiti, but the difference between graffiti and art is subjective, resulting in a lot of confusion. Mayor Mike Duggan launched a war on graffiti shortly after taking office in 2014; the crackdown led to over 50 arrests and $1.2 million in fines in its first 3 years (Ikonomova 2017). In his former role as Wayne County prosecutor, Duggan charged two out-of-town graffiti artists with conspiracy to commit malicious destruction of a building, a felony punishable by five years in prison (they were able to plead down and serving 6 months). Duggan also threatened to send a high-profile artist and what he referred to as “his organization” to Jackson Prison.

Public art increases foot traffic and property values, and in recognition of this as well as the backlash against the mayor’s graffiti crackdown, the city has made moves in recent years to include murals as part of beautification and blight abatement programs. Private property owners may commission or invite public art on their properties, but it is strongly recommended that they register their artwork with the city to avoid receiving blight tickets. There is not always clear communication between artists and city officials/law enforcement; even artists who have been contracted by the city to paint murals have been mistakenly arrested and detained while working on them.

The recent protest art that is the focus of this essay occupies a unique place in local discourse about displacement. It is part of/in response to national protests against police brutality and racism, but it is also a response to other issues that Black Detroiters have faced for decades, such as displacement, blight, healthcare disparities, and widespread demolition and the exposure to environmental and health hazards (such as exposure to lead dust and asbestos) that it brings. It is also a response to the issues of property ownership and the appropriation and destruction of art by Black creators.

In the following section, I present the works themselves, the circumstances around their creation, and information about the artists.

The Artwork

The above house-turned-canvas is located on the city’s east side. Though I did not find any information about the artist on the installation itself, it is near artist Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (HP) and includes elements of his style, such as the time stamp, the bright color palette, and the incorporation of stuffed animals. This piece is the only one of the three that does not depict or mention individual victims of police brutality by name. It is also the only piece that uses an entire structure as a canvas, another element of Guyton’s style. The structure has been badly burned and is open to the elements.

Guyton founded the Heidelberg Project in 1988 after returning to his childhood neighborhood to find the formerly diverse, working-class community experiencing high levels of structural blight/abandonment, poverty, and drug use. Teaming up with his grandfather Sam Mackey and children living in the neighborhood, Guyton cleaned up vacant lots and transformed blight into art.

Armed with a paintbrush, a broom and neighborhood children, Guyton and Grandpa began by cleaning up vacant lots on Heidelberg Street. From the refuse they collected, Guyton transformed the street into a massive art environment. Vacant lots literally became ‘lots of art’ and abandoned houses became ‘gigantic art sculptures.’ Guyton not only transformed vacant houses and lots, he integrated the street, sidewalks and trees into his mammoth installation and called the work, the Heidelberg Project (“HP”).

Much like conducting a symphony, Guyton systematically re-arranged the existing landscape on Heidelberg Street by incorporating found objects, the street, the trees, the sidewalks, abandoned houses, vacant lots, nature and even the people! To this end, Guyton’s work was met, by some, with fierce disdain and in the first 18 years became the subject of great controversy and heated debates. Guyton claimed that his art was a medicine—a bitter pill to swallow—for the people and that the pros and cons were part of the process.

The Heidelberg Project, History

Heidelberg has always been controversial. The city demolished portions of the HP in 1991 and 1999, and a series of unsolved arsons destroyed 8 structures within the project in 2013. Some believe that the HP is an eyesore and a hazard, and that it draws additional unwanted attention to the city’s high levels of structural vacancy and blight. Despite setbacks and challenges, the HP continues to expand and remains one of the most visited tourist sites in the city.

The above mural by Phil “Fresh” Simpson, with a poem by poetry artist Joel “Fluent” Greene, was commissioned by a Black-owned cannabis company for its grand opening in July 2020. It depicts Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, whose deaths at the hands of police earlier this year have sparked ongoing nationwide protests. Fluent’s poem references Taylor, Floyd, and Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was lynched by a white mob in Mississippi in 1955, alongside the names of two Detroiters killed by police, Malice Green and Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Stanley-Jones was shot and killed by a police officer in 2010 when a SWAT team mistakenly raided her home in search of a murder suspect who lived in the flat above Jones’s; she was just 7 years old. Malice Green, a 35-year-old Black man, was beaten to death by two white Detroit police officers on November 5, 1992 after a traffic stop.

The poem incorporated into the mural reads:

For Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, go forth, be bold
Be the rings around Saturn, beautiful to behold
When the world shows its teeth, bare your soul tenfold
There's a divine plan for you, got a scroll to unroll

For Malice Green, Emmett Till, be a movement, whole
Give glory to the name, gifted to you when born
Your beautiful life matters, on both sides of the road
You're magic from Detroit, you're Aiyana Jones

--Joel "Fluent" Greene

The phrase “on both sides of the road” is a reference to the mural’s location on 8 Mile Road, the physical and symbolic dividing line between Detroit, with a population that is 80% African American, and its suburbs, most of which are predominantly white.

Sydney G. James’ mural, the Malice Green Mural Monument or “Way Too Many”, depicts Malice Green holding a scroll with the names of more than 1,000 Black and Brown individuals killed by police.

Five days after Green’s murder in 1992, artist Bennie White Jr. painted a portrait of him on the side of a vacant party store near where he was beaten. This mural served as a memorial until the building was controversially demolished in 2013 as part of the city’s war against blight.

James, who was 13 when Green was murdered, was distraught to hear of the 1992 mural’s destruction:

“If nothing else, it should exist just because it’s like another piece of us being erased. […] Because just like him dying was a historical moment, him being resurrected in the painting was also a historical moment because it showed media, it showed police, it showed the world, that we remember. We’re not just gonna let this go, we’re not gonna forget.” 

–Sydney G. James as heard on Michigan Radio (2020)

James explains that she painted Green to look like a sculpture, a monument to the violence enacted against Black and brown Americans since the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the Virginia colony in 1619 (Michigan Radio 2020). She included a black tear streaming down Green’s face, a reference to Bennie White’s 1992 mural in which Green appeared to be crying black tears.

James says that she was inspired by the waves of protests against police brutality across the nation to paint this mural, but she was also reacting to the COVID-19 epidemic, which hit Detroit particularly hard in the spring of 2020 and which has disproportionately affected the metro region’s Black residents:

“I feel like the danger of [COVID-19] made the police brutality more of an urgent situation. […] We ain’t about to be out here attacked by invisible invaders and invaders we walk past and see every single day. We’re tired. We’re over it. We’re tired. It stops here.”

–Sydney G. James in Hooper (2020)

Discussion: Themes

Displacement + the Importance of Black Ownership

In the last twenty years, Detroit went from having one of the highest rates of Black homeownership in the country to being a renter-majority city. Illegally inflated tax assessments between 2011 and 2015 resulted in the Wayne Co. Treasurer foreclosing on 1 in 4 properties in Detroit, displacing thousands of Detroiters and resulting in widespread structural vacancy and decay. Instead of addressing the conditions that create blight and fighting to keep Detroiters in their homes, city officials diverted federal funding meant to help low-income Detroiters pay mortgages to blight removal, primarily in the form of demolition. In addition to destroying homes and destabilizing Black neighborhoods and communities, demolition contaminates the environment by releasing lead dust.

The shift in property ownership demographics in Detroit and landscape clearance via demolition continue to shape local politics and visual representation. Two, and possibly all three (Guyton’s is the only possible exception), of these murals are painted on buildings owned by Black Detroiters who control what happens to the artwork. Sydney James is a co-owner of the art gallery where her mural is located, and she spoke about the importance of retaining ownership over the mural so that it could not be demolished and erased in the way that Bennie White’s mural/memorial of Malice Green was.

The mural and poem by Phil “Fresh” Simpson, and Joel “Fluent” Greene was commissioned by the proprietors of a Black-owned cannabis company, speaking again to the importance of Black-owned businesses and property ownership as a way to ensure the protection of visual culture, including artwork.

Though I have only attributed the third piece to Tyree Guyton and so can’t confirm that the home in the installation is owned by him or by the Heidelberg Project, the fact that I have visited it twice in recent months and did not notice any changes to it or see public notices on it suggests that the property owner has at least invited the installation.

Guyton’s circumstances are unique because he frequently incorporates entire structures and manages a large-scale art environment with living, aging installations and sculptures…and because they are vacant, the installations may not be structurally sound. These are issues that, because of their very recent creation and the fact that they are limited to one side of occupied, maintained structures, James and Greene are not yet dealing with. The Heidelberg Project is currently assessing several of its long-term installations to see whether they can be saved, sold, torn down, or relocated to museums and galleries as the Project moves in a new direction. Guyton does not view these changes as a loss to the Project but as a transformation that allows it to expand and stay in alignment with the organization’s core values to create a sense of place and community through art.

Memorialization, Grief, and Unresolved Trauma

When Malice Green was killed in 1992, the country was still reeling from the protests resulting from the Rodney King case, in which Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of using excessive force against King despite bystander video evidence showing police brutally beating him. Despite the national attention that Malice Green’s beating and death received at the time, by 2013 a Detroit journalist was asking, “Who is Malice Green?“, suggesting that too many Detroiters had forgotten or were unfamiliar with his story. This perceived lack of awareness was attributed in part to the passing of time and the demolition of Bennie White’s mural for Green–which had been visible from a freeway and was a local landmark–and to the fact that justice for Green and other victims of police brutality has yet to be achieved; it’s a story that repeats itself over and over again in this country across time and space.

Sydney James speaks of the exhaustion and frustration that comes with compounded inequality and unresolved historical trauma. Exhaustion and grief in the face of unrelenting violence and a lack of meaningful change does not mean Detroiters are forgetting victims of police brutality and their stories.

James also speaks to the idea of monumentality, painting Malice Green “not as a man, but as a monument”. Monuments and statues of racist historical figures have become a focal point for recent protests around the world and are regularly being destroyed and removed. Murals such as James’ serve as new monuments or anti-monuments not only to individuals but to the countless victims of police brutality and violence throughout the country’s history.


These three powerful works of art are protest and change in progress. While they do speak to hope for the future and to the beginnings of meaningful changes underway in Detroit and in the US more broadly, this is 2020 and the United States is still in crisis. It is likely that violence against people of color and anti-racist protesters will continue to escalate in the coming months regardless of which candidate wins the upcoming presidential election, and that people of color will continue to be disproportionately sickened and impacted by the Trump administration’s catastrophic mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

What perspectives and tools can contemporary archaeology offer in these times? In Laia Colomer’s recent article on “the archaeology of heritage commemorating bigoted white men”, the author discusses how statues of colonizers and slave traders–and white people’s refusal to critically engage with their significance–perpetuate historical and cultural traumas. Sydney James’ decision to paint Malice Green as a statue/monument and not as a man–creating, in effect, an anti-monument–allows viewers to engage with and explore that distinction and call the function of monument traditions into question. Statues of white supremacists and oppressors signify “…or ratify narratives of history learnt elsewhere. They are milestones to remind us of cultural and national narratives, iconographies that persist in our everyday landscapes, in our streets and in our tourist guides” (Colomer 2020).

Protest art flips this paradigm on its head, using those same traditions to confront viewers with the accumulated grief and traumas that these monuments symbolize and contribute to. The murals discussed here, for example, especially those that incorporate individuals in images or by name, focus on the legacy and unresolved trauma of slavery and racism and its impacts across space and time. Rather than simply replacing existing statues, these recent murals and installations lay bare and interrupt the cultural work that such monuments carry out, asking viewers to critically engage with and commemorate dark history while also recognizing its powerful capacity to fuel and inform change.


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Colomer, Laia. 2020. “Black Lives Matter and the archaeology of heritage commemorating bigoted white men.” Science Norway (blog). July 7, 2020. https://partner.sciencenorway.no/archaeology-opinion-racism/black-lives-matter-and-the-archaeology-of-heritage-commemorating-bigoted-white-men/1709994.

“Detroit Artist Sheefy McFly Won’t Face Charges For Arrest While Painting For City.” 2019. WWJ Newsradio 950. https://www.radio.com/wwjnewsradio/articles/detroit-artist-sheefy-mcfly-wont-face-charges-arrest-while-painting-city.

Feighan, Maureen. 2020. “Juggling Act: New Malice Green Mural Reminds Us What’s at Stake amid Protests.” The Detroit News, June 11, 2020. https://www.detroitnews.com/story/life/2020/06/11/new-malice-green-mural-going-up-artist-sydney-james/5332688002/.

Hinds, Julie. 2020. “Detroit Artist Creates Malice Green Mural That Honors Lost Lives of Black Men and Women.” Detroit Free Press, June 14, 2020. https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/detroit/2020/06/14/malice-green-mural-artist-sydney-g-james/5322752002/.

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LeDuff, Charlie. 2010. “What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?” Mother Jones, 2010. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2010/09/aiyana-stanley-jones-detroit/.

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