Places

About
Foundation
Partner Schools
Print Archive
Peer Review
Submissions
Donate
Contact


Departments

Critique
Essays
Gallery
Interviews
Multimedia
Partner News
Peer Reviewed
Poetry & Fiction
Projects


Topics

Architecture
Art
Books
Cities + Places
Community
Culture
Design History
Design Practice
Development
Ecology
Economy
Education
Energy
Environment
Film + Video
Food
Geography
Health + Safety
History
Housing
Ideas
Infrastructure
Landscape
Photography
Planning
Politics + Policy
Preservation
Public + Private
Reputations
Sustainability
Technology
Transportation
Urbanism
Water



Design Observer

About
Books
Job Board
Newsletters
Archive
Contact




Gallery: David Clements & Douglas Haller

Writing on the Wall




For two decades David Clements has roamed the neighborhoods of Detroit, looking at the city from multiple perspectives: as advertising agent, film location scout and photographer. He has discovered a style of folk art signage unique to Motown, that city obsessed with automobiles and music. The story of Detroit is well known — a top-tier industrial capital, now depressed and underpopulated — and it has given rise to an entire genre of urban landscape photography typified by books like The Ruins of Detroit. What’s missing from all the photographs of abandoned train stations and decaying ballrooms is some acknowledgment that there are people still living in the city center — 900,000 of them — and they have something to say.




Social and economic forces over the last 30 years have produced an urban core that is mostly black, Latino, Arab and Asian-American, surrounded by a sea of mostly white suburbs. The Detroit metro area’s 3.5 million suburbanites drive to the city regularly but spend little time on the streets. Clements’s photography captures messages sent by city center residents to those who pass by in automobiles. In this slideshow, he focuses on signs and murals that employ religious-infused script to proselytize, or hyperbole and humor to advertise. The folk artists who create these murals, signs and graffiti are often anonymous, but they are sometimes recognizable by their style or signature.

Storefront churches advertise themselves as “An Oasis of Comfort in a Desert of Calamity,” guaranteed by specific pastors and offering incentives such as van pick-up for services. One personal testimonial declares, “I Gather Brotherhood to Wait out the Cold,” over which a revisionist has written “Sisterhood.” But not all the messages are about impending Biblical doom. The writing on the wall includes the Tasmanian Devil and his 100% Whoop Ass Ball Cleaner, as well as the shoemaker’s elves from a previous era who bear witness to the city’s German and Irish heritage.

Most telling is a solitary placard nailed to a utility pole in an empty urban field. The pole casts a shadow like a finger pointing to the remains of an abandoned industrial building topped by a dysfunctional water tower. It has only one word of advice: “Evolve.”

Douglas Haller


Editors' Note

David Clements's photographs were also featured in Borderland/Borderama/Detroit: Part 1, Part 2  and Part 3, an essay by Jerry Herron, published by Places in July 2010.
Share This Story

RELATED POSTS


Tourist Snapshots


Paper Anniversary


The Blue Corvette


Gita Lenz: New York Views


Corrections and Collections



RSSSubscribe to Comment Feed

Comments (5)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

Sorry to be so mundane but how do you get paid to do this. I love it. I do it but then I have to go to work.
Sandy Olson
02.23.11 at 02:58

What's more to the point is, who's work is this? It is definitely not yours. You took the photos, but so do I (or we all). The act of archiving these signs does not add or subtract from them. They are what they are and they should be presented as such.
Richard R.
02.25.11 at 02:34

"discovered a style" for whom? In the same way that Columbus "discovered the Americas"? I appreciate this kind of culture but not the bend that is often put on it when trying to get it publicity.
Erin B.
03.14.11 at 10:27

I think that all of the complaints are very clearly addressed in the short article; taking these pictures is not David Clements's day job, and the people making the signs "are often anonymous." Would you rather not have someone post fascinating collections of images for free?
Dan
03.15.11 at 10:06

That beauty of this type of art (street art, pop art, graffiti, folk art...whatever you want to call it) is that it is often anonymous, yet very poignant and personal--it's not just another mega-corporation--it's something that we can, at some level, relate to or understand. The photographs, although of another artist's work, still require an eye for composition and content. Well done!
carlos
01.17.12 at 02:15



LOG IN TO POST A COMMENT
Don't have an account? Create an account. Forgot your password? Click here.

Email


Password




Donate to Places: Your Support Makes Our Work Possible



ABOUT THE SLIDESHOW

A selection of photographs by David Clements of some of the hand-painted signs and murals found throughout Detroit.
View Slideshow >>

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Clements is the photographer of Talking Shops: Detroit Commercial Folk Art (2005) and Art in Detroit Public Places (2008). He operates David Clements Productions in Royal Oak, Michigan.
More Bio >>

Douglas Haller is a photographic curator, archivist and historian, and a native Detroiter.
More Bio >>

DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









MORE ON Detroit


Motor City Breakdown
On Places, Jerry Herron looks at the troubled portrait of Detroit — and its spectacular decline — in recent books and films.

Detroit, As Is
On Places, a portfolio by the Detroit-born photographer Dave Jordano, drawn from his latest series, Detroit Unbroken Down; with an introduction by Aaron Rothman.

The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit
On Places, Andrew Herscher challenges the usual view of Detroit's decline: "What if Detroit has not only fallen apart and emptied out but also become a new sort of urban formation that only appears depleted through the lens of conventional urbanism?"

Lafayette Park: Living in Ordered Exhibition
On Places, Melissa Dittmer describes the experience of living in Mies van der Rohe's Lafayette Park in Detroit, where the glass-and-steel architecture encourages "a sense of intimacy that fosters community."

The Last Pedestrians
On Places, Jerry Herron traces the intersecting lives of architect Albert Kahn, artist Diego Rivera and industrialist Edsel Ford — and how they all shaped the visioin of Detroit as industrial powerhouse.

Living with Mies: The Towers at Lafayette Park
On Places, photographer Corine Vermeulen and the design collective Placement offer a glimpse of life in Lafayette Park, the Mies van der Rohe-designed residential complex in Detroit.

Detroit Re-Photography
On Places, the Detroit Rephotography Survey, by Dave Jordano, documents the same sites in the early 1970s and 2010.

The Forgetting Machine: Notes Toward a History of Detroit
On Places, Jerry Herron tracks the decline and fall of his home city of Detroit, from ruin porn to the demolition of Hudson's to Henry Ford's first horseless carriage.

Detroit: Syncopating an Urban Landscape
On Places, Dan Pitera, of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, curates a portfolio of projects by artists, architects and activists who are reshaping the city's abandoned landscapes.

Borderland/Borderama/Detroit: Part 3
On Places, the third and final installment of "Borderland/Borderama/Detroit," an exploration of the rise and fall — and persistence — of Detroit, and what it means in American culture, by writer and historian Jerry Herron.

Borderland/Borderama/Detroit: Part 2
On Places, part 2 of "Borderland/Borderama/Detroit," an exploration of the rise and fall — and persistence — of Detroit, and what it means in American culture, by writer and historian Jerry Herron.

Borderland/Borderama/Detroit: Part 1
On Places, the first installment of "Borderland/Borderama/Detroit," an exploration of the rise and fall — and persistence — of Detroit, and what it means in American culture, by writer and historian Jerry Herron.