Mapping Detroit’s Murals
An Interview with Viranel Clerard of The Detroit Mural Project on our community data project for Gehl Institute’s Public x Design
Detroit is a city of dramatic contrast and change. From the demise of manufacturing to the recent financial crisis, Detroit has suffered steep losses in people, jobs, and public funds. While those numbers tell a story of decline and dearth, the streetscape shows another city emerging, as individual artists remake the city’s facades with murals of abundant color, scale, and narrative.
Often unplanned and unauthorized, Detroit’s murals have emerged like an alternative public record of community ideas and aspirations. They mark history, honor community figures, and share personal dreams. Viranel Clerard, age 24, is a Detroit native who sees the murals as a public treasure. Viranel is a community art advocate and educator who also works as an Uber driver and at Trader Joe’s. Since 2015, he has optimized his nimble movements throughout the city to document over 500 public murals. He created The Detroit Mural Project as an online archive to catalogue each mural by artist, location, and when possible, origin story. Recently we collaborated with Viranel to map the murals alongside Detroit’s city data on Stae.
Although technically “open,” like many community-based research or documentation projects, the mural data could not be viewed alongside official city data sources. Now as an integrated, interoperable data source on Stae, anyone — from neighborhood advocates to policymakers, can see the mural data alongside Detroit’s open data sets like 311, public transit, and building demolitions. When community members, like Viranel, create and integrate their own data sources, then open city data becomes a medium for grassroots expression — a democratic lens to show how the city is changing and to help shape what it becomes. Here, we chat with Viranel about his experience documenting the public art of Detroit and the importance of augmenting his archive from art to data.
Tell us, how do you define a city?
A city is just a very large home. It’s filled with art-covered walls, people you love, people that annoy you sometimes, and lots of rooms, some of which you’ve never been in and never will. And every person that lives there shares some knowledge of the home in common—some more than others.
When did you first fall in love with the public art of Detroit?
As the son of two Haitian immigrants, I spent summers in Haiti as a kid. In contrast to the concrete-filled streets of Detroit, Haiti is very vibrant and colorful, both from the greenery and the colors people choose to brighten up their communities.
In the greyness of Detroit, color pops. You notice it more. Coming home from Haiti and seeing how bland most places looked and then seeing the color splash color from the murals was what got me to fall in love with public art.
What was the first mural you documented?
There is a mural by the artist Sintex in Southwest Detroit in the viaduct, next to the Ford Central Train Depot. It’s a memorial piece for a woman named Yvette. That’s the first piece I took a picture of with the intention of researching it. I was in the 10th grade. My sister and I were just out exploring the train depot that had been abandoned for decades. There was this big name painted in pink, teal, and baby blue, with an airbrush of a lady’s face. I never found out who Yvette was, but I learned the artist’s name.
Why does public art matter to Detroit?
I think that in Detroit, art creates a sense of identity for the city itself. The people already have a strong sense of identity—they’re rich in culture and full of pride. This is the home of Motown, the former Paris of the West, the birthplace of assembly lines — people here have a strong sense of history. But the city as a collective identity faces many challenges, such as the crime rate, the bankruptcy crisis, and corrupt politicians. Detroit is still finding its new identity. The art is an amazing opportunity for a city that needs a new reputation to refresh its tarnished one.
How do you spread the impact of your public art archive?
I’m really passionate about my work with The Heidelberg Arts Leadership Academy, a nonprofit that offers free after-school arts classes. I teach a mural arts class where we invite muralists into the classroom, take kids on tours of murals in the city, and then together, paint a mural at the school. Another class that I teach is an art through hip hop class, where we help kids understand symbolism and narratives by analyzing album covers. The kids then write poems that they present as “albums,” using collage and other techniques to create their own album covers and track lists.
Why do community data projects matter to cities, especially ones like Detroit, that are undergoing significant change?
Data is extremely important in helping cities make plans and understand communities. For example, by mapping public art you can look at correlations between the art and economic development factors like building permits, crime rates, and more. Cities that are in a process of recovery, like Detroit, often don’t have the budget to document art that they didn’t commission themselves. The state doesn’t have a database of public art as large as mine, even though I’ve only had the time to post a fraction of the work I document.
What would you want to teach Detroit via its art?
I hope that people find themselves in the murals —that they discover an artist with a similar life story, or learn about an artist of an underrepresented race, gender, nationality, or social class. I want to teach the city using art, because art says what words can’t. It educates while leaving things up for interpretation. Art doesn’t hide its bias. Art heals by providing an open space for people to have an experience in common.