A Burning City, A Polka-Dotted Street

Lauren Traetto


Every time I turn around, it seems, I bump into another muralist carefully painting the face of a building. And I couldn’t be happier. Street art is gaining ground as governments and organizations commission artists (often erstwhile targeted as criminals) to bring traffic to blighted neighborhoods and preserve structures slated for demolition (as in Hense’s painting of a historic church in Washington, D.C. or Adrian Barzaga’s Constitution Building project in Atlanta). Is this a thing we call a movement? I adore street art; I believe it is one iteration of the same impulse that first got us blowing pigment on cave walls, the same impulse that gives us Byzantine mosaics and Tiebele house painting and vernacular art. Especially vernacular art. The assemblages and yard art of visionaries like Lonnie Holley and Dilmus Hall stir something inside me that it wouldn’t be polite to explain.

Imagine, then, how my arteries pounded when I learned about an entire neighborhood of Detroit painted up in murals and barnacled with vernacular art assemblages. A neighborhood where the streets are polka-dotted, the sidewalks lined with painted panels, and the trees heavy with shoes. Tyree Guyton watched his city burn during the Detroit riots. He built the Heidelberg Project in Detroit as a response to the resulting blight and decay in his neighborhood, and here street art and vernacular art intersect. The project’s website describes what they do:

The Heidelberg Project is art, energy, and community. It’s an open-air art environment in the heart of an urban community on Detroit’s East Side. Tyree Guyton, founder and artistic director, uses everyday, discarded objects to create a two block area full of color, symbolism, and intrigue.

They call this a “funky artistic cultural village,” an initiative that transforms vacant houses using the preservative values of street and vernacular art. Because this project arose to change a neighborhood people were once afraid to walk through, each work tells a story about current issues plaguing society. There is the “Obstruction of Justice House,” all piled up with painted panels of shoes, the letters “OJ” and  “LAPD,” butterflies, stuffed Tweety Birds, and American flags. The “New White House” is covered in polka dots––a recurring symbol for diversity because they resemble Guyton’s grandfather’s jelly beans, which reminded him of the people of the city. There is a house covered in numbers, one covered in large stuffed animals, a car intricately decorated with glued pennies. They intend to host art and educational classes inside each location, creating an art space with a visible marker and linking it conceptually to Hense’s Washington D.C. church and the Elevate project in Atlanta.

In the same way that street art is endlessly subjected to vigilante buffing, the Heidelberg Project has been partially demolished twice by the government of Detroit (who called it an “eyesore”): once in 1991 and again in 1999. As a testament to this community’s strength, neither attempt at destroying the Heidelberg Project was successful. It is now a protected landmark.

Guyton’s own art is unironically spiritual and rooted in his work with the community. Like most vernacular artists, he uses discarded or sacred objects (car hoods, spiritual writings in his own notebook) as the foundation for layered and striking images. His “Two Countries, Two Cities, One Spirit” project began with the drawings and spiritual writings he gathered in his notebook, which he scanned and printed onto rag paper. He “let the work speak to him” and layered over these images with monotype, hand coloring, and collage. The word clusters (mouse, sluice, new york, schlep, brisance, epistemology), repeating images, and collage feel at once playful and spiritual, as though Guyton actually captured those two blocks of Heidelberg on the page.

The Heidelberg Project has grown into a major draw for tourists since its inception 26 years ago––and this was kind of the point. Creating an art marker for a city works. This is why so many organizations commission artists to create murals, to combat entropy. And like almost all vernacular and street art, this project is subjected to the question: “Is this art or junk? Art or eyesore?” As inclusive online as in reality, the Heidelberg Project poses the question for you to decide.