Dotting Detroit, Michigan, are “signs of life”: signs promoting tire repairs, barbershops, hair salons, wigs, fresh fruit. Detroit business owners have a long tradition of hand painted signs and entire buildings to command attention, announce services and invite the public. There is little regard for signage ordinances. You can paint just about anything you want on your building. The bright images last as long as the paint holds out against the environment, or the property is sold and the building repainted for the new owner’s taste.
Sprinkled throughout Detroit are various images of President and Mrs. Obama.
The public is very proud of our President. His image has been carefully hand painted on garage walls, brick walls, and cinder block walls by local artists with various degrees of technical skill and availability of paint and materials. No matter, the skills, the carefully crafted images “speak” to the visitors traveling through the communities.
The fame of Detroit’s painted signs and buildings has brought American and International tourist’s to the city, sometimes seeking guides to see even the most obscure sites. These tours of “continuing life” in Detroit are very different than the city’s spectacles of abandonment and “ruin” that are also sought after for touring.
At the corner of the 8000 block of East Forest Street at Van Dyke Street is an empty rectangle lot once built with multiple storefronts and homes. Framing the land is a series of 10 plywood 4’x8’ surfaces nailed to four-by-four posts surrounding the landscape. Many signs are simply youthful designs. The best sign is President Obama’s image circled by a waving flag and a quote presumably by him: “Though we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideas: Democracy, Liberty, Opportunity and unyielding Hope.
Lee “Bird” Walker is a third generation sign painter who excels in drawing people. He is proud of our President, “our African-American President”. In 2010 “Bird” painted the President’s image on a brick wall on a busy street to remind people who our President is. In 2011 he returned to the painting and changed some of the color tones. The image has not been touched or defaced and still speaks to the passing cars.
Gas stations and retail service stores also used the President’s image. To entice more business A & J Tires uses the President’s image on the wall along with Arabic text and high contrast colors. Obama Gas does a steady business drawing on name power to compete with national gas station brands. Davidson Tire’s yellow building with teal green doors announces their services supported by the President’s image before a silhouette of the Detroit skyline. President and Mrs. Obama have been painted in sweeping colors memorializing the inauguration ball demonstrating both romance and charisma above an entrance to a decaying corner retail store.
At Steve’s Produce on Connor Avenue, is a portrait of the President and his slogan Time For Change, just below signage for a super watermelon sale.
A local hair salon painted in a orange-yellow that can be seen for blocks, has a floating display of bubbles over the skyline of Detroit .The President’s image, in a bubble, is found along with a happy hair customer, and Michael Jackson leaping skyward.
Color is important in Detroit architecture and neighborhoods. The choice of creating ones own signage and the love of using bright arrays of colors brightens not only the buildings but also the minds and moods of the business owners, their customers, friends and neighbors. This is the promotion of the American Dream, owning their own business, and a personal statement of hope and pride.
This article originally appeared in The SCA Journal - Society of Commercial Archeology, Spring, 2013.