Graffiti Wanted: A Public Art Project in Detroit
April 11 – June 3, 2016
849 Henry Street, Detroit
24 hours a day/7 days a week

Ponyride Detroit is pleased to announce Graffiti Wanted, organized by Applebaum Emerging Artist Resident Eleanor Oakes.  Graffiti Wanted is an invitation to the public to paint graffiti on the wall at 849 Henry Street that faces Grand River Ave (‘Our Gallery’ building, see picture below).

The project is an effort to engage a dialogue about public art, vandalism, and censorship in Detroit. Anyone is welcome to participate at any time during the two-month installation, just bring your own paint!  No approval or permission is required, participants can be anonymous and there are no restrictions on what can be drawn on the wall.

All contributed graffiti will be documented for a final printed piece, but then painted over to replicate graffiti removal happening all over Detroit.  The project will function as a performance, a free platform for expression, and a lasting document.  Spread the word and stay tuned for upcoming events over the course of the installation!

Graffiti Wanted is open to the public 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from Monday, April 11 – Friday, June 3.  For more information contact Eleanor Oakes or visit the project online at or on Facebook.

This project is generously sponsored by Ponyride Detroit, The Applebaum Family Compass Fund, and Katie Katz & Ken Katz. The wall at 849 Henry Street, across Grand River Ave from Cass Tech High School: * Participation is at the individual’s own risk and neither the property owner nor any sponsor is liable for any action or injury that may occur on the property at any time.

PLAYGROUND DETROIT interviewed the artist in residence behind the project, Eleanor Oakes about her concept and living in Detroit.

Image credit, Eleanor Oakes

Image credit, Eleanor Oakes

Where are you from?

I was born in New York, but my parents moved from their East Village apartment to a pastoral farmhouse in New Jersey shortly after I was born.  I grew up there and then moved back to New York after college. My wonderful partner Hal gets the credit for bringing us here.  He was set on attending law school at UMich.  At the time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave the Bay Area, but I was intrigued by Detroit.  So we packed up a very large Penske truck and hit the road.

How long have you lived in Detroit?

I’m still a newbie.  We moved here from California after I finished grad school in 2014.  It hasn’t taken us long to call Detroit home, and we already know that we want to stay here for the foreseeable future.

The city gives me energy and inspiration.  It’s hard to exactly define why, but I think it comes from a friction due to the seeming fault lines that run through it.  In any given day, I usually bounce between downtown, the outer neighborhoods, and the suburbs, and the landscapes and populations change dramatically between each.  These worlds rub against each other more vigorously in Detroit than any other city I’ve lived.  It clearly reveals the detrimental social strata we have built in this country and asks how we can address it, artistically and otherwise.

The arts here do not exist outside of this greater civic structure. And while the artistic community might be small, the borders between specific arts, genres, and interests are porous in ways that are supportive, rather than competitive, and encourage collaboration.

What are your mediums of choice as an artist?

I am predominantly a photographic based artist, although in recent years I’ve also been experimenting with video.  I work in photography because I like looking.  Part voyeur, part surveillance, the camera is an excuse to visually scrutinize the world around us.  I struggle with the two-dimensionality of the medium, but I think struggle is a productive part of trying to define your practice.

I would add that I’m still very invested in the materiality of photography.  I still shoot with film, and teach in the darkroom.  The physical interaction with the medium beyond the digital realm is very important to me.  This also why I’ve founded Darkroom Detroit, a non-profit to encourage photography education and access, particularly analog, throughout the city.

Image credit, Eleanor Oakes

Image credit, Eleanor Oakes

What inspires you?

 I am most inspired by things that I find difficult to comprehend and I make art as a way to grapple with them.  For instance, the functioning of memory and our perception of time, things we experience deeply but can’t necessarily quantify. I am also incredibly inspired by other artists, not in the interest of making a feedback loop of work that is only self-referential, but in how many different ways there are to perceive the world around us.

Who are influential artists in your life?

I am infinitely grateful for the amazing artists who have been my teachers over the years, Emmet Gowin and Abe Morell among many others.  They examine the world with a profound grace and wisdom that is truly humbling.

There are too many artists who inspire my work, but I am particularly appreciative of artists that validate the imperfections in any artistic practice.  Artists, such as Tacita Dean, Patti Smith, and Sally Mann, who are highly critically aware in their work, but also sincerely honest about their process.

What about your creative process have you found to be the most successful for you?

External interactions and processing space are both essential to my creative process; being inspired by a great gallery or museum show, talking about art and work with friends (preferably around a fire with a couple beers), and going off somewhere to quietly read and/or write.  Transporting yourself outside of your normal routine or environment always sparks new ideas.

What is the most important concept(s) or theme that your work revolves around? 

While a lot of my work looks very different, they all attempt to address themes of absence, time and memory.  Developing unexposed film from 1927 physically elucidates the imprint made by a century of light, photographing stained backgrounds with the subject removed to obscure narrative, or revisiting places from childhood that exist only in blurry memory to rectify them with the actual location.

Image credit, Eleanor Oakes

Image credit, Eleanor Oakes

Can you pick one piece of work that you would consider your favorite?

My own work?  No way.  It’s not that I love them all so much, but because they all represent different things to me, and very different times in my life.  As an artist I think it’s impossible to disconnect the work from the making, and the experiences of making my work are as valuable to me as anything else.

What is the concept behind your Ponyride project?

The Ponyride project, Graffiti Wanted, is an extension of my current photography work documenting graffiti removal around Detroit.  My images depict the removal as found canvases, accidentally created through attempted erasures that are secondary acts of painting.  The images are more aesthetic than political, but the issues that surround them contemporaneously are contentious.

My favorite part of making this work has been the interactions I have with people when I’m out shooting.  Individuals approach me out of curiosity and we end up having very open conversations, usually about their lives.  I wanted to integrate more of this interaction into my practice, offer a platform for more people to be involved with the work.

Graffiti Wanted is a public wall at 849 Henry Street, facing Grand River Ave, where anyone can paint anything they want, whenever they want, now through June 3rd.  Participants don’t need any approval or permission; they just need to bring their own paint.  I am documenting all contributions for a final printed piece, but then painting over the works to replicate the act of graffiti removal, and to provide a new blank canvas for further participation.  It’s now in its second week, and I’ve already been overwhelmed by the amount of response, it’s fantastic.  Ponyride, The Applebaum Family Compass Fund, Katie Katz and Ken Katz have all been wonderfully generous in helping me facilitate this work here in Detroit.

What do you want to achieve with the project?

The goal is to involve the community in a dialogue about graffiti, public art, and censorship in Detroit.  These are timely issues; Bedrock is putting up another mural downtown as Shepard Fairey faces charges for work made here last summer, property owners fear being ticketed for graffiti or even sanctioned artwork, and this week’s Detroit Free Press article illustrates the city’s aggressive policies prosecuting graffiti crimes.

This project is not originally designed as a political statement, but I do feel that we need to facilitate a discussion on encouraging innovative public art projects in the city, rather than deterring them.  Property owners are now being forced to remove bygone painted signs from their buildings.  I see these as historical artworks that give value to my experience of the city and would love to see them preserved rather than erased. Detroit is not the proverbial “blank canvas” and we shouldn’t be trying to turn it into one.

Image credit, Eleanor Oakes

Image credit, Eleanor Oakes

What do you love about Detroit?

Biking!  I’ve never been a city biker before, but I love moving around at a legible, yet efficient, pace.  As a photographer, it’s also the perfect means to explore the city visually when I’m scouting for new material. I also love Eastern Market.  You can find Hal and me there every Saturday with more vegetables than we can carry, Germack coffee in hand, sizing up antiques on our way to get cheese at Devries and babaganoush at Gabriel Imports.

Describe what you imagine Detroit to be in 10 years.

I have no idea.  That is scary when you see the government enforcing policies you don’t agree with, but exciting when things like public transit plans are being discussed.  I think that’s part of why Detroit gets so much media attention, we are standing in the middle of a seesaw constantly rocking between two possible paths.  This also means we have a responsibility to push Detroit towards a future we believe in.