The following is the first in a series of articles written by photographer Tom Stoye about a variety of aspects of his experiences and observations while documenting graffiti art in Detroit.
By Tom Stoye
My interest in graffiti art began in the summer of 2003 when I bought my first digital camera. The economy was beginning its downward trend, and with little work, there were few options to occupy my time. Digital photography was still in its infancy, and I soon realized that it afforded me the luxury of taking pictures without spending a lot of money on film and darkroom costs. I could take pictures, and worry about making prints at a later date. My only real obstacle was applying a new technology to a medium I had been practicing since my teens.
I started out by taking pictures of Heidelberg Project founder Tyree Guyton’s “dots” that covered hundreds of derelict buildings all over the city of Detroit. I thought it would serve as an easy subject matter, and allow me the chance to play around with my new digital camera. In the process of taking pictures, I began to notice graffiti art coexisting in similar environments along with Tyree’s art. I found it compelling that graffiti artists were living in complete anonymity, while Tyree was openly painting big colorful circles on abandoned buildings.
It was at this point, I thought graffiti art would make for an intriguing series of photographs, which would not only document graffiti culture, but would also serve as a flashpoint for a more expansive dialogue regarding a global art movement that was polarizing in every aspect. Whether it was community-based legal murals done in the graffiti style, or street side graffiti, done in the middle of the night under a shroud of secrecy: both seemed to draw the ire of public opinion, despite its growing popularity in youth culture.
I began to completely dedicate myself to learning as much as I could about the art form, while systematically canvassing the city of Detroit photographing every piece of graffiti I could find. The next logical step forward was to make the transition from photographing graffiti art, to actually photographing someone in the act of painting, but I had little clue as to how I was going to make it a reality.
In the summer of 2004, I hooked up with a local filmmaker who was trying to make a documentary film about Detroit graffiti. He introduced me to a graffiti writer who was receptive to having his picture taken, with the caveat that his face be covered while doing it. By August of 2004, the idea of photographing a graffiti writer finally became a reality.
Much of what happened that day is a blur. What I mostly remember though, was the combination of fear and excitement I felt, and thinking I was hooked. The bigger question became, how was I going to continue this project while raising a family and making a living? Hanging out with young graffiti artists didn’t exactly fit into the realm of normalcy for someone my age, but I wanted to give it a try, now that I had my feet wet.
A couple of months had passed, when I found myself wandering around the abandoned Packard Motor Company plant on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit. By happenstance, I stumbled upon a graffiti writer named DETHER, who was painting by himself. He said he was part of a graffiti crew who painted out of southwest Detroit. After a short conversation, I told him of my desire to take pictures of him. I gave him my phone number, expecting never to hear from him again.
To my surprise I got a call back a week later. We arranged a meeting and DETHER shows up with a friend from southwest Detroit who introduces himself as LOAF. In the beginning of our conversation, heappeared to be making a concerted effort to appear disinterested, but then he’d change gears and start to talk about the parameters of what he would allow regarding me photographing him. I asked that I be allowed to photograph them with full access, and without any disguises. This made matters a bit more complicated, but I wanted the narrative to be authentic, and I felt that if their identity were compromised I’d be dancing around the truth. I had waited nearly two years for this, and now here I was sitting in my Dodge, at the mercy of their kangaroo court.
I didn’t exactly sweep them off their feet at first, but I slowly began to gain their trust. I realized I was going to have to be patient and take my time in order for our relationship to grow. Initially, I kept my camera at a safe distance because I considered this a “getting to know you” phase, and pointing a camera at them would complicate the progress I had already made.
Although we didn’t have much in common, and there was a considerable age gap between us, what we did have in common was taking pictures, which they referred to as “flicks.” I had amassed a huge pile of photographs of Detroit graffiti, and this proved to be a valuable social buffer when I was hanging out with them. It didn’t take long to figure out the temporal nature of street art, and that the photograph was all that existed once a graffiti piece was painted over. The photographs I had taken turned out to be the glue that held it all together. When we’d hang out, the writers would spend an inordinate amount of time sketching in their black books, and looking at my pictures. They saw great value in the documentation of their street art once they were finished with a piece. Despite the 25 years that separated us, we developed a mutual friendship that was beginning to benefit both of us. I made every effort to keep updating any new pieces that would appear on the street. Showing them my photographs became a routine that allowed me to eventually gain their respect.
It was through LOAF, that the idea of documenting graffiti writers in southwest Detroit started to become a reality. This began an eight-year journey that allowed for access to all facets of graffiti culture as it related to LOAF and his circle of friends. What started out as a documentary about graffiti art eventually became much larger in its scope, as I was introduced to a wide circle of friends and family who lived throughout southwest Detroit.
Southwest Detroit is an ethnically diverse, well-established neighborhood in Detroit, where a strong sense of community pride co-exists with problems that afflict many urban areas. Residents of southwest Detroit display a strong and realistic resolve in dealing with the many problems that plague their neighborhood. The presence of churches, schools, restaurants, public art, and a variety of family owned businesses comprise a sea of humanity unlike any neighborhood in the city of Detroit. There is an urgency and a liveliness to southwest Detroit, that make it uniquely endearing to anyone who comes in contact with the area.
The people and places that I’ve photographed in southwest Detroit are not only a representation of what exists, but also a record of the experience derived while taking photographs.