Detroit’s BLKOUT Mural Festival Invites Artists to Paint City Streets
Detroit’s new BLKOUT Walls Mural Festival invites artists to come and paint the city streets.
When you think of Detroit, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? You might be thinking of Motown and how the city saw the first recording studio and headquarters of this iconic label. Perhaps you think Detroit’s history was once a booming hub for the auto industry, which ultimately took a toll on the city’s economy and housing market, forcing the natives to abandon their homes and businesses and leave the city. Or, maybe you think of the influence of African American culture wrapping its arms around the city, bringing the culture and food scenes of Detroit to life. Whatever you think, there is beauty in this historic Michigan town.
“Welcome to D!” The natives of Detroit will say in a moving voice that makes travelers feel immediately welcome. âThere is so much love here. It’s so family-friendly here, especially if you’re a black traveler or a traveler of color. If you come here, you will have the impression of being down the street from your cousins, wherever you are â, wonders Sydney G. James, originally from Detroit and one of the founders of BLKOUT Mural Festival.
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The BLKOUT Walls Mural Festival is a first biannual black-led mural festival that was launched in James’ hometown of Detroit. The festival was a weeklong event that ran from July 24-31 last summer. It is the friendship and the lack of visibility of BIPOC artists in the major mural festivals that have fueled the Sydney G. James friends, Thomas “Detour” Evans, and Max Sansing to plan the first Black-led mural festival in Detroit, which brought together locals and art lovers from across the country in Detroit’s North End. From 9000 Oakland Avenue to 7696 East Grand Blvd, the festival featured a Nepalese muralist Sneha “Imagine” Shrestha.
âWe are always so excited when we see a black muralist in an exclusively white space. [in the art world]Says Sansing, an artist and muralist from Chicago.
âWe are always so excited when we see a black muralist in an exclusively white space. [in the art world]. “
This excitement and the lack of diverse representation at mural festivals led James, Evans and Sansing to form a team of artists and organizers, including Bird hat, Che Anderson, Laura Milanes and Lex Draper â to create what is now known as the BLKOUT Walls Mural Festival. The festival brought together some 20 artists from across the country, who identify primarily as blacks and people of color, who have come to Detroit to paint buildings in every color imaginable.
âIt’s a family reunion,â says Nepalese muralist Imagine, who traveled from Boston to be a featured artist at the inaugural BLKOUT Walls Festival.
The event included artist talks, a neighborhood party open to the community, and panel discussions. From day one of the festival, participants of the BLKOUT mural festival could walk the streets, seeing the artists’ first sketches on each wall or hand-drawn illustrations come to life before their eyes. During the week, the muralists would often stop and talk to the community as they walked or drove, complimenting, criticizing or asking questions about their work.
Sansing collaborated with the Boston muralist and art educator, ProBlak, on a wall that featured Afro-Futurism in deep tones of navy blue, orange and colors reflecting the Pan-African flag. Black women’s afros were vividly painted on the side of the building, making it difficult to ignore.
As you follow the BLKOUT Wall Map Walls and wandering around every block, you are immediately captivated by powerful images of blacks demonstrating contagious joy and power as they are captured on the walls of abandoned buildings in Detroit. Paintings of faces of known and unknown humans leave viewers curious about the story of each person the artists decided to paint.
Looking into the eyes of the individuals painted on each wall, viewers may wonder, what are they afraid of? What do they aspire or hope for? Stories written with dabs of paint in tones of canary yellow, tangerine and dark purple will exhilarate any art lover. Equally intriguing are the stories of artists, including black trans and non-binary artists from Detroit. BakPak Durden, who decided to paint a self-portrait of themselves displaying freedom in their body.
“[As] public artists, we are the scrutineers of the time. Public art is a way to reinforce the message you want to spread to the world. Give it to the people, âsays James.
In addition to giving art to the people of Detroit, James wants to help ensure that artists are taken seriously and paid for their contributions to making the world a better place.
âWe need to move the creative economy,â adds James. âThere is no product that has not started with the hand of an artist. Not a sock, not a shoe, so what we do is reverse this type of culture [assuming artists work for free]. “
The artist’s hands included an internationally renowned Mexican artist Victor “Marka27” QuiÃ±one, who painted one of legendary hip-hop producer J Dilla’s most prolific Detroit murals, titled “Dilla is Forever”.
âWe don’t have a J Dilla fresco that’s a staple in the city. I think people will travel to see this wall, âsays James.
Marka27 partnered with Mississippi muralist Birdcap, who blessed his mural and painted the infamous donut on Dilla’s mural. Birdcap, an organizer of the BLKOUT WALLS festival, blessed its own wall located in a vacant building at 952 Clay Street in Detroit’s North End with a colorful mural of cartoon-inspired characters. He freestyle the mural in wet 90 degrees while a woman from Detroit cooked ribs on the grill behind him.
As you can imagine, planning an inaugural festival was no easy task. Still, James, who Sansing said was the âboots on the pitch,â took care of the administrative side of organizing the festival. She leveraged her connections with the city, which prompted them to add support by polishing and preparing the walls. The BLKOUT Walls Festival has received support from the Knight Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Detroit Pistons, Ford Foundation and Vans to help fund the festival.
âSydney did a lot of footwork. You can basically tell it was her event,â says Sansing.
And how do you organize an inaugural mural festival during a pandemic? Well, Sydney G. James has the perfect recipe: a mix of the right fundraising, a good administrative and field team, social media and web management, fundraising and strong partnerships.
Now that the BLKOUT Walls are alive on the streets of Detroit, the founders’ hope is to expand the festival to cities like Chicago, Memphis, and Boston, even though Detroit will always be BLKOUT’s hometown.
James is set to publish a BLKOUT Walls volume 1 commemorative book in the near future. ” We will sell [the book], and all proceeds will go towards the production of the festival. [The book] will be released before Christmas and will feature the walls and artist biographies, âsays James.
While so much has been taken away from Detroit over the years, you can never take away the city’s spirit or its vast contributions to American history. James says that as long as the building owners and the community preserve the murals, the art will remain visible for the world to enjoy.