Detroit artists tell the real story of living in the ‘D’ after half-time
nyone grabbing a pint at Windsor’s Phog Lounge lately may notice photos covering the walls of a man wearing a rabbit mask smoking and swigging out of a bottle of malt liquor in a dilapidated building somewhere in Detroit. In another, the same man performs an almost gravity-defying leap off a concrete wall.
This is the work of Dennis Maitland, a Detroit-based photographer who’s photos are on exhibit at Phog Lounge until the end of February.
On a sunny afternoon at Phog last week, Maitland is showing off some of his work. “I had a camera on timer for this one,” he said, referring to the shot of him leaping off a wall. “I had to get the timing down perfectly.”
Maitland’s work is literally dizzying. He dangles his feet over elevator shafts, ledges and fire escapes several stories from the ground to take photos as a part of his “Life on the Edge” series. “I was scared to death of heights before I started this set of photos.”
As Maitland’s focus shifted to his camera, the fear slipped away. For him it’s all about getting the perfect shot. “I put a lot of trust in myself,” he said. “All the photos are taken by me. No one else is holding the camera.”
In a particularly daring piece entitled Rooftop Rabbit, Maitland set his camera on top of one end of Michigan Central Station and ran across the roof to take his own photo (in his signature rabbit mask) via remote against the backdrop of Detroit.
The resulting photo is a stunning work of art. Like all his photos, there is a genuine sense of love for the city of Detroit, its art and architecture.
People see Detroit as the mecca of abandoned buildings, but the media coverage just leads to further decay. - Dennis Maitland
We’ve become accustomed to a familiar narrative about Detroit; once the beating heart of American industry, it’s now a ruins that is almost a living museum to what was once the American dream. It’s a story that Detroit artists like Maitland are now trying to get people to see beyond.
Maitland has his own worries about what has become a growing focal point for tourists in Detroit; abandoned buildings. It’s certainly the case that the image of Detroit is now tied to images of decaying skyscrapers and burned out homes. The photos that tourists take of the buildings have earned a nickname: ruin porn. It’s the glamorization of these buildings that worries artists like Maitland and other critics in the Detroit community.
In the January 2011 edition of Guernica, an online arts and politics magazine, Detroit writer John Patrick Leary commented on the state of ruin porn and the glamorization of the abandoned buildings in his article “Detroitism.” “So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins,” he wrote.
“People see Detroit as the mecca of abandoned buildings,” Maitland said, noting that he’s frequently contacted by people across the world to give tours of the ruins. “But the media coverage just leads to further decay.” The worry for many in the community, like Maitland and Leary, is that people won’t look past the buildings and see all the other things that Detroit has to offer.
While his photos are primarily taken in abandoned buildings, Maitland makes a concerted effort to ensure they are not the focus of his art. “I try to avoid ruin porn,” he said, pointing to the wall of a photo of him sitting in an abandoned building with his rabbit mask. “I try to figure out something different to do in the buildings because they are so overshot.”
“I’m the most cautious when it comes to giving away locations,” he said, taking care not to tag the names of buildings when he posts his photos to the popular photo sharing site Flickr.
The danger of identifying buildings doesn’t just lie with nosey ruin tourists. “Metal scrappers look online,” he said. “It’s a big issue.” Some buildings, like Michigan Central Station, have been completely stripped of all the metal in them by intrepid urban miners.
Everyone in the Detroit art scene doesn’t share Maitland’s fears. Malt, a Detroit- based graffiti artist, doesn’t feel that people visiting the abandoned buildings are a big deal. “People aren’t trashing anything,” he laughed, “the buildings are already trashed!”
Malt has been a graffiti artist in Detroit for almost 20 years. He started as a teen, skateboarding around the city with his friends looking for walls to tag. Now his art, featuring psychedelic animals living in what he calls his “Acid Forest” series, is being shown at Detroit art gallery Start Gallery, until Feb. 18.
“I love that all these out-of-towners are coming in because I don’t have to leave Detroit to see great graffiti,” he said. “With graffiti, up close and personal is better. A photo can’t do it justice.”
The abandoned buildings also function as ever-changing art galleries, with street artists throwing up new pieces every couple of weeks.
Malt has noticed the shift from the 1990s. “It was just a few guys going around and doing graffiti then,” he said. Now, he knows there are hundreds of out-of-towners coming in to tag walls. “It’s just been a huge explosion of the art scene.”
In response to this explosion, galleries like Start Gallery have taken up residence in the Motor City. “Start Gallery opened last May as an outlet for some of the many creative artists that have a great amount of talent, but haven’t made it to the next step yet— exposure.”
Jason Reed, owner and director of Start Gallery, is eager to bring Detroit art off the streets and into the homes of the people who can support Detroit artists— art collectors. “We can show it in a setting that befits its quality, while at the same time leaving the artist to do what they do best, create art.”
Maitland thinks what drives this scene is the willingness of people to embark on their own paths. “People are buying square blocks of land and putting up gardens,” Maitland said, discussing the DIY attitude of young artists and professionals. “People don’t do anything to make money there,” he added, “it’s just for the love of the art and the love of the city.”
Reed agreed. “I think people want to be in the city (Detroit) because art lives off of itself,” he said. “If you want to make art, you need to be around other artists and in areas where people seek out art.” For them, it’s all part of the effort to create a new image of Detroit that depends on art rather than hardship.
Dennis Maitland’s work can be found at dennismaitland.com. His exhibition runs at Phog Lounge until Feb. 29, with a closing reception on Feb. 24 at 7 p.m.