Painting the town: The stories and artists behind Lansing’s murals

This article was originally published in the Lansing State Journal

LANSING — At night, LED lights highlight the beauty of the four murals painted under the bridge where U.S. 127 crosses above Michigan Avenue.

“Under the Bridge” Murals by Brian Whitfield are lit up at night.

Two sections are Lansing-themed, entitled “Work” and “Play.” The “Work” mural honors Lansing’s workforce, with an emphasis on General Motors. “Play” includes a visual ode to basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, his Everett High School roots and high school basketball games.

The other two murals, called “Discover” and “Create” are about East Lansing. “Discover” tells a story about Lansing’s youth leaving the city so they can discover Michigan State University and themselves. “Create” highlights local festivals, art galleries and other things East Lansing has to offer.

The four 50-by-25 foot murals, collectively titled “Under the Bridge,” are Lansing native Brian Whitfield’s first solo mural project.

“It was like jumping off a cliff,” Whitfield said. “Because before that, I helped with murals. But that was really my project. So I had to figure out how to do a large scale mural like that.

“People come to visit or they’ve lived here and come back and drive by and say ‘Whoa, what’s happened here?'”

This is one of several murals in the alley behind businesses on 300 E. Cesar Chavez Avenue in Lansing’s Old Town.

The city of Lansing is looking more colorful lately because artists have been turning empty city walls into huge public canvases.

They’re in alleys, on buildings, under bridges. They line the Michigan Avenue corridor, and are prominent in REO Town and Old Town.

And they help reinforce a sense of place and history and to remind passersby of neighborhoods’ unique identities.

“I think Brian’s piece ‘Under the Bridge’ has given us a focus of connecting East Lansing and Lansing to each other and brightening up a very dull, drab, dark space,” said Debbie Mikula, executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing.

“Murals have a way, by painting pictures and painting things that are important to the community, to tell our story in a different way.”

Artist Sam “Samskee” DeBourbon estimates he’s painted about 15 to 20 murals around town, sometimes multiple times on the same wall.

About seven or eight of them are in REO Town, but he’s also painted in Old Town, including the wall at Golden Harvest, on which freestyle bevel letters say “Smells like bacon.” He’s also done murals in East Lansing and Haslett.

A garage in the parking lot of the Lansing Brewing Company on 518 E. Shiawassee Street in Lansing is painted with a colorful mural by Samskee.

DeBourbon, a Lansing native, says he’s a muralist, but also paints graffiti on his murals. Most of his works are done with spray paint. And he recently had the opportunity to paint inside the Michigan Central Depot in Detroit, which was recently purchased by Ford.

“Ford unveiled the train station, and I was one of the four graffiti writers who were chosen to do some live painting for that,” DeBourbon said. “It was really cool.”

DeBourbon helped organize the Deluxe Inn Motel project in REO Town at Malcolm X and Washington Avenue. The project was meant to convert the boarded-up Deluxe Inn into a statement of urban artistry. The artists on site were painting mostly words or abbreviated words.

DeBourbon worked on a piece that faced South Washington Avenue. It read “SRSLY,” which stands for “seriously.” It was part of his community service for painting an area bridge that had since been ripped out, he said.

“That’s pretty much what started the whole revival of REO Town, that project alone in 2010,” he said. If he meant to exaggerate, his voice didn’t show it. DeBourgon once lived in the neighborhood, but moved to a house he bought in Churchill Downs in south Lansing about a year ago.

And the artist-painted motel was eventually torn down in hopes of seeing the corner redeveloped, although for now it remains a grass covered lot.

DeBourbon is not surprised that murals around Lansing largely remain untouched by vandalism.

“I’ve seen blighted communities where somebody comes in and paints a really sweet mural, lot of times it’s like a memorial, and it really doesn’t get messed with,” he said.

“People are not going to touch something that they think looks cool.”

This mural under the Shiawassee Bridge in Lansing was created by Tea Brown.

Artist Tea Brown painted the mural “Break Free” under the Shiawassee Street bridge for ARTpath, a new outdoor art exhibit where art is showcased on bridge underpasses and other public spaces along a 3.5 mile stretch of the Grand River.

The mural features large, colorful wings as its centerpiece, surrounded by an eye, the Michigan mitten with a yellow arrow pointing at Lansing, scripture and various other things.

“Art brings people together and that’s what I want to do,” Brown said. “I like to inspire people. I like bringing people of all different cultures and backgrounds together. That’s what it’s all about, really.”

“‘Break Free’ is epic,” Brown said. “It gives you like a shocker boost when you’re standing there in the middle of it.”

Brown painted her first mural in 2009 — a jungle theme with a tiger, monkeys, frogs, birds, a waterfall and some trees.

Then, she took a break, stopping for several years, in part because she was raising her son by herself. She worked in a factory, a hospital, a restaurant, a bank.

She started to put herself back into her painting when her dad, who died two years ago, started to get sick.

“Before, it was more that I just did it as an outlet,” she said. “That was how I expressed myself because I wasn’t that great with expressing myself with my words.”

She looks up to Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci and has studied him. There is a lot of hidden symbolism and meaning in everything she paints, she said, which isn’t always obvious to spectators.

“This piece in particular, I based it kind of off of the Last Supper,” Brown said. “It’s empowering, so If you take a step back, all the way to the other wall, you can see it, you can compare it, see what I did.”

Willie and Orabe Fuller, owners of Shanora’s Beauty and Barber Supplies at 829 W. Saginaw St., wanted to introduce people to African Americans who had made a mark in history. Some would be recognized, others maybe not so much, but they’d spark interest.

The Fullers commissioned Mark Beard, a Detroit artist and Lansing native, to create a colorful mural on the building’s exterior wall. The mural would depict African American heroes, performers and athletes.

A mural on the side of a house adjacent to Shanora’s shows its age.

Beard, who died at age 36 in 1996, told the Lansing State Journal back then that he “hoped the murals would inspire people to examine their roots and look toward the future.”

Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and others graced the wall.

“Mark’s mural was something to draw people to, to make people think,” Willie Fuller said. “When Mark did the mural, he wanted people to think about what they could be, by seeing these different people on the wall.”

Beard also painted a mural on the house adjacent to Shanora’s.

“On that mural there was a big quote that said ‘Think what you could be.’ It was a message to the young people. Some of the people that were on the wall you could relate to, recognize. But he wanted them to know, now you have to put yourself in their places. It’s your time to get on the wall. But you’ve got to do something.”

Eventually, the store’s mural began to fade, and, in 2008, NorthWest Initiative’s Westside Alliance Program along with Shanora’s, hosted a community day to help paint sections of the mural.

Artists, adults and children participated in painting the new mural, which includes former President Barack Obama, Condoleeza Rice, Tiger Woods, Hillary Clinton and others.

A mural on top of the Nuthouse Sports Grill at 420 E. Michigan Avenue welcomes visitors to Lansing.

Mikula feels the murals are a way to tell the stories of the community, to bring energy to public spaces.

“They’re bringing life to buildings or spaces or canvasses that are large and can showcase the community in a very different way than a gallery setting and having art within the walls of a building,” Mikula said.

This prominent mural by MICA and Reach Studio Art Center is behind the 300 block of E. Cesar Chavez Avenue and Turner Street.

“Take the ‘Greetings from Lansing Michigan’ mural overlooking the Nuthouse Sports Grill, now seen in commercials. We’ve also seen it on TV shows such as ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.’ They’re using that as a way to welcome people and tell people that Lansing is a pretty creative place.”

The Arts Council has paid for many of the murals, but not all of them.

“We grant out about $275,000 each year for different kinds of programs,” Mikula said. “We have six different programs that we actually grant money out to. So our work is not to create the murals, our work is to help fund them.

“Like the mural on the side of our building that was done by … the teens over at the Reach Studio Art Center, was done through MICA gallery, through a mini grant that they received through the arts council.”

The council was instrumental in helping to raise $107,000 for the ‘Under the Bridge’ mural and get Whitfield attached to the project. That didn’t come from grant money, but through sponsorships and crowd funding.

Muralist Brian Whitfield from Lansing, works on a mural on the back of the Venue at Michigan and Clemens Avenues Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018.

Whitfield is a graphic designer for the Michigan Department of Transportation. He received statewide recognition for his creation of a Mackinac Bridge-themed license plate in 2012.

He is now working on a project on the Michigan Avenue corridor on the “The Venue,” an apartment and retail space at the corner with Clemons Avenue. The artwork was commissioned by developer Scott Gillespie and will have about 10 murals once it’s finished.

The mural will show the history of the city’s east side, including Emil’s, The Green Door, Sparrow and the old Boy’s Vocational School.

Brian Whitfield works on one of several murals he is creating on the back of the Venue on Michigan Avenue and Clemens Street in Lansing. He is showing a history of Lansing’s Eastside in his work.

“The one I’m doing now is focused on the history of that area, so I come up with my own ideas how I want to portray that,” Whitfield said. “Sometimes that can be difficult.

“People love to remember Emil’s,” he said, referring to the Italian restaurant once located at that corner. Indeed, the Emil’s building torn down to make way for The Venue was known for a mural depicting sights of Italy on a west-facing wall.

“There are a lot of stories behind that one,” Whitfield said. “So, that kind of helps me out with the ideas. Then you have to decide how you want to show that particular thing. That’s where I try to tell a story when I do it.”

Many of the murals around town look a lot like graffiti. But they’re not.

“A lot of them are done by the same type of artist,” Brown said. “I’m not a graffiti artist. I’m a street artist. I’m a muralist. There’s a difference. Most people don’t know that. Because graffiti is lettering.

“Letters aren’t my thing. Painting pictures, that’s my thing. A picture can say a thousand words.”

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