United Artists Theater Spawns Graffiti Debate

posted by sdoerr on August 16, 2004 at 5:43 am

DETROIT, MI — For years now, there has been graffiti in the windows of the former United Artists Theater here in Detroit, and it has spawned a debate between historians, preservationists, and the art community. Is graffiti urban blight or is it art?

Now, the issue has spread to the media, as seen in this article from the Detroit Free Press.

The graffiti has been on the building since the late 1990s, when owner Mike Illitch left the building and theater open for months — an opportunity seized by vandals and graffiti artists.

Theaters in this post

Comments (23)

JimRankin on August 16, 2004 at 8:07 am

No two ways about it: GRAFFITI =IS= VANDALISM, pure and simple. True, Detroit and most cities now face such monumental problems that the costly fight against vandalism may often be beyond their means. They are right in supposing that the permitted proliferation of ‘tagging’ or similar use of graffiti to deface structures will only cheapen them and the city they are in, and thus encourage a fall in property values and the subsequent flight of responsible citizens to areas less frequented by such criminal acts. To the weak kneed, and those low in morality, let the argument that graffiti (which were originally wartime political expressions removed after the war) is an art form by denounced for the deceit it is. An art form is paid for either by the artist or some patron, not involuntarily by the property owners whose properties become the UN-authorized “canvases” of the victim owners. Do not owners have property rights? Of course they do! Such ownership and the right to say what becomes of their property, is one of the bedrock principles of our society, and most other civilizations. Vandals no more have the right to deface someone else’s property than would they have to deface a person by assaulting then on the street and marking the victim’s face and clothing with any colors or designs they wished. The fact that such victims could then in theory go and wash themselves and buy new clothes, does not in any way argue in favor of the rank disregard for law and public safety that the weak ‘liberals’ (actually, Libertines) might argue when saying that the ‘poor, underserved miscreants are merely expressing their frustrations in not having suitable public 'canvases’ supplied as an outlet for their ‘genius’ If such attitudes were not so tragic, they would be laughable.

There is blame to be shared beyond the desecrating ‘taggers’ since owners who do not do all that is reasonably possible to secure a property (beyond merely locking the doors, which obviously is of no real help these days) are themselves tacitly encouraging criminals, vandals, and vagrants to befoul their buildings and endanger the neighborhood. Responsible owners employ security guards —at least itinerant and randomly scheduled ones— to make sure that the buildings are not “occupied” at night or any other unauthorized time. Silent burglar alarms that would bring armed responses are the only real way to prevent criminal use of some building. Must the city wait until something far worse than a tagger inhabits a derelict structure, such as a young child being victimized there for rape or ransom? When will the money grubbing owners be held legally responsible for tacitly allowing such activities in their properties that such as arsonists can gain entry and start a conflagration that will then spread to other buildings and perhaps threaten other lives such as those of firemen? Don’t hold your breath for any quick changes in Detroit or anywhere else, dear lovers of nice buildings and safe cities; the cowardly and ever-greedy politicians will forever team with their benefactors, the idle rich property owners to prevent any meaningful statute by which the elite rich would be penalized from profiting from social decay by letting the taxes paid by the ‘little man’ support their property speculations at the cost of society as a whole. Realize that only God can end these machinations, and He soon and suddenly will. (Rev. 11:18: “…I will bring to ruin those ruining the earth.”)

scottfavareille on August 16, 2004 at 8:34 am

I liked the last post. I live in an area where graffiti is a problem. And I think a lot of the problem is those who call it art, which encourages more of these lawbreakers(yes, defacing private property is a crime) to do it. Recently, a maintenance man at my condo complex caught two teenage girls tagging one of our buildings with black spraypaint. The police were called and part of the punishment imposed by the juvenile court was for them to go (supervised) into our complex and clean off any graffiti they found, including the stuff they created.

Graffiti leads to vandalism and other property crimes like break-ins of parked cars and burglary. Also, many who do graffiti are in street gangs, who are involved in other crimes like drug dealing, armed robbery, assults, and murder.

Patrick Crowley
Patrick Crowley on August 16, 2004 at 8:58 am

Jim — Graffiti is clearly art, but it’s an underground art form that is mostly expressed through illegal means. In fact, there are many graffiti artists who have gone legit and whose work is exhibited in art galleries around the world.

Whether we call it art or not, graffiti is likely to occur in vacant buildings, rail yards, tunnels, and other derelict spaces. Is it illegal? Yes. Is it wrong to deface property? Yes. But it’s still art.

JimRankin on August 16, 2004 at 9:17 am

Patrick’s kind words may be to defend the ‘artistry’ of those who seek vandalism as their outlet, but I can’t help but wonder how generous would be his words about ‘art’ were he to wake up and find his windows and building and maybe his car ‘enhanced’ by the artistry of taggers who may not even have the courage to sign their ‘works’? Would he feel such largeness of heart after spending hours trying to remove their ‘artwork’? Perhaps he feels that all such ‘tagged’ property should be required to go about that way to advertise the ‘talents’ of the poor, misunderstood ‘artists.’ He is entitled to his opinion, and the ramifications of it.

Patrick Crowley
Patrick Crowley on August 16, 2004 at 9:26 am

Relax, Jim. If my home or car was “tagged”, I’d be just as upset as anyone else whose property has been vandalized. But, even then, graffiti would still be art.

AndyT on August 16, 2004 at 12:59 pm

Ohhhh, a great discussion. This is the kind of thing that makes this whole website valuable. Graffiti is clearly a threat to our favorite buildings, as well as a threat to quality of life. It’s been addressed so well in New York City: one has to look no further for a recipe to minimize the problem.

Ross Melnick
Ross Melnick on August 16, 2004 at 2:24 pm

(I actually once had my car vandalized by spraypaint and it’s no fun, believe me.)

I think the truth of the matter lies in the middle. There are many who consider graffiti art, but I personally don’t like seeing it on any theaters (unless it’s a sanctioned mural, etc.).

sdoerr on August 16, 2004 at 3:48 pm

Graffiti is a from of art, I enjoy looking at them, but they should not be on buildings they do not own or have permission to do so. This graffiti is amazing, it should be in art museums. Most of the problem is they want good exposure, o matter what they do it on. Graffiti anymore means lower property values, bad image of the area, and blight. Graffiti would be more respected if it wasn’t just tags all over the place, or things such as turtles in Detroit. Graffiti is not liked just for the vandalism, but for the tagging, curse words, characters urinating on other graffiti. I think graffiti should be more respected, but should not be on buildings, maybe have a graffiti park where they can just keep it there, and possibly do some murals. I wouldn’t mind seeing a tribute to what Detroit cone was, that the building owner OK’s. At least the window graffiti was on the windows, which can be replaced……if the building gets saved, you don’t know what that idiot Illitch, its already for the most part gone, and not to mention graffiti like I said makes a bad image regardless and makes the building more likely to be demolished by th citizens, officials, etc.

Scott on August 17, 2004 at 8:51 am

Until this article I wasn’t aware of any debate regarding the value of graffiti. It’s wrong simply because it’s vandalism. It violates one’s personal property. Nothing to debate there. The background of the perpetrators and the fact that it might have value to them is of no consequence. Why must everything be upside-down these days?

Ziggy on August 17, 2004 at 10:58 am

Patrick, you are 100% wrong. Graffiti is vandalism. The only reason that anyone is able to excuse it as art is that the standards of what constitutes art have been completely removed, to the point that modern society will fall for any act of vandalism as long as it can be passed off as “art”. Even if these vandal were to create their works legally it would not be art. It’s just the kind of trash an untrained and juvenile mind would produce as it looks for a creative outlet, much along the same lines as the crayon scribblings of a 4 year old. It may be interesting, it may have value of a personal nature, but it’s not art.

GaryParks on August 17, 2004 at 12:42 pm

I saw the United Artists Building in 1995. It was in bad shape then. So sad to see that it is being further abused.

Re. graffiti. Much if it is indeed art of a sort. This does not excuse it being put on any surface without the owner’s permission. This is indeed vandalism. Just like any other artform, there is graffiti muralwork which I find attractive, and work which I find ugly. As for the simple tagging…it is basically the human version of a dog lifting his leg on a fire hydrant or tree.

At least these graffiti artists seem to be studying history somewhat—seeing that they are using Maya heiroglyphs to inspire some of their work. That’s more than one can say for some of their contemporaries, who have no regard whatsoever for learning history or art. This does not excuse the vandalizing the UA Building, it’s just an observation.

JimRankin on August 18, 2004 at 5:52 am

I have to comment on Mr. Parks' remark likening the activities of ‘taggers’ to that of a dog urinating upon a tree: it may be natural for dogs, but no society of law would tolerate a man doing the same thing! We are not by any stretch of the imagination “animals” since God created us for far more lofty purposes since man was created in His image, but given the free will that animals do not have to decide to do wrong as well as right. Regardless of the degree of artistic achievement a graffito might evidence, it is something that any human can consciously decided NOT to do, unlike an animal (actually an elaborate ‘robot’ of sorts) which cannot decide to do right or wrong since it has no such concepts, it merely acts according to programming, elaborate programming to be sure, but still only within the limits that its Creator decreed. Perhaps we should put up signs on homes stating that it is OK for people to urinate upon them, provided it is done artistically, perhaps in the form of Mayan symbols.

The absurdity of passing off such conduct by saying it is “artistic” can easily be illustrated by carrying it to its logical extremes: is a bank robber excused if he is so courteous as to not injure any of the bank’s inhabitants? Is a guerilla warrior excused of slaughtering his victims provided he does so neatly, even ‘artistically’ if little blood is spilled (what a boon such an attitude would be to the current groups in Iraq)? Is a rapist to be excused because he didn’t tear the girl’s clothes and could therefore be labeled by some sympathizer as “artistic”? Yes, some graffiti does show the miscreant creating it to have artistic talent, but to describe it this way only serves to justify it in today’s amoral society. Should we wonder that such “artists” often progress to larger crimes from there? Permissiveness never gets you anything but a slap in the face from the perpetrator. How sad to mark the demise of the UA theatre partially due to society’s permissiveness = a failure to stand up for right versus wrong, regardless of how ‘artistic’ it may be in the eyes of some. If the present or future owner were ever inclined to restore it, might the presence of extensive graffiti cause him to reconsider the additional costs associated with removing them, and dissuade him from the project? We all pay for graffiti in many ways.

Ziggy on August 18, 2004 at 1:59 pm

I agree with Jim Rankin completely. The most obvious proof that grafitti is NOT art is the simple fact that art is creative, vandalism is destructive. Are these vandals improving the United Artists theatre by covering it with the garbage they produce? No, they are destroying it. The United Artists Theatre was itself a work of art. It took planning, talent, and discipline to produce. The grafitti vandals are only ruining what someone else has created (something they have no right to do, by the way). If these vandals are truly artists, then the man who smashed Michaelangelo’s “Pieta” years ago is also an artist. Someone who spray paints over the “Mona Lisa” is an artist. Why is society so terrified of having standards for what is and isn’t art. Even 30 short years ago this debate would not be taking place, because people still had enough common sense to call garbage and vandalism by their right names. It’s only in today’s society where standards have been labelled as “censorship” and “closed mindedness” that vandals can be referred to as artists. Well, if they want to be artists, they need to get something of their own to blotch up with their junk. I’ll recognize their freedom to destroy their own property, but not someone else’s, and I’ll never recognize them as artists unless they can produce something artistic.

UAGirl on August 20, 2004 at 10:57 am

I’ve got to agree with Patrick and Neo. The UA graffiti is vandalism but from the provided photos it adds a bit of life to the grand lady. Given the long history of abandonment I think that the window art at least gives some form of colorful beauty and life to the UA. After seeing her in person it was very obvious that the owner doesn’t care about the theatre. So why let her sit and rot while folks scream about how it is a travesty for the building to be in such a wreck? I think that it is high time that folks face the facts about this palace…she and many other buildings in downtown Detroit are in a state of congestive heart failure. Detroit had its boom a good while back and most of the city is in a state of physical decay. The financial means to bring her back up to health are far beyond what the local economy can handle. Even if: (a) the funds were available and (b) the public would agree on the budget there is a great chance that the building itself could withstand the restoration. It’s not a matter of what belief is correct but a matter of what process is functional for the city to carry on.

On a note… it’s funny that someone should say this:

“How sad to mark the demise of the UA theatre partially due to society’s permissiveness = a failure to stand up for right versus wrong, regardless of how ‘artistic’ it may be in the eyes of some.”

The permissiveness that allowed this palace to be painted is the same permissiveness that let such a beautiful theatre go to waste. If the owners fully believed that the theatre was such a vital asset then rather than passing her off from one owner to the next why did they not do their best to keep her running? Until her final days I think that the UA Detroit should be held for what she was and for not what she could be. The city is filled with the remnants of things that could have been.

As a note: I too have had my car and my theatre painted. The tagging of my car wasn’t too great but the over night mural that appeared on the side of my theatre was rather good. Two months later my company took notice and tagged the interior and exterior of the building with several coats of paint. Plus, they made massive repairs. Profits are up a grand bit and the community respects my theatre…again. In a time where functionality out weighs frivolousness many older/declining theatres will be place on a scale that will reveal sad results.

sdoerr on August 30, 2004 at 12:46 pm

here is a link to the window graffiti: http://www.snweb.org/pics/det35.jpg

Tynan on April 8, 2005 at 3:32 pm

no two ways about it:GRAFFITI=IS=ART. yes, I agree, there are some points where graffiti is vandalism, like vile racist comments scrawled on a wall, but other than that, graffiti is an underground form of art. For some, like myself, its our only release. Yes, a real canvase would be oh SO much better than a wall that is not “our own,” but a canvase is nothing like a new, untouched wall. For most of us writers, this is freedom. When I walk up to a wall, can of paint in my hand, adrenaline rushing through my viens, I see no boundry’s. I can do anything I want with my hands. I can make people stare in aw, or I can make people turn away in disgust. I can make people listin to any kind of messege I want to send out. Its my choice. The moment I push down the cap, to the moment I drop the can to the street, is pure realese, is plesure at its best. Nothing can compare. Nothing else matters in life. Its just me, and the wall. and as I stand back, and look at the wounderfull gift I have given the world, I couldnt feel happier.

JimRankin on April 8, 2005 at 9:27 pm

How sad for you Tynan, that you recognize only your own ‘achievements’ and not the rights of others, but how so much sadder for the buildings you deface. Your yawps at your own estimation of your ‘artistry’ smack of a small man needing the reassurance needed by a little boy. I do hope that one day you will realize that real achievement lies in the appreciation and plaudits of the society one lives in, and that society is not the furtive gangs of self-congratulatory miscreants that rationalize their conduct by saying that at least they are using spray paint rather than guns. When you say “[it] is pure release, is pleasure at its best. Nothing can compare. Nothing else matters in life.” you are of course stating what matters to your life, not that of others: the unfortunate property owners who have had nothing to say about your desecrations, not even the hapless passersby who must be assaulted by your ego’s imagination of its achievements. Your statement betrays that your quest is NOT for art as you would have us believe, but for crass sensations of the juvenile mind where nothing but its own pleasure matters in his selfish, self-serving life. I could have pity for you if you were misguided, but your deeds spring from a heatless selfishness that has the audacity to mount this public forum and brag about your lawlessness. I can only hope that you grow up some day, and that you assault no more property.

Ichab0d on June 29, 2005 at 3:08 pm

I agree with both sides here really. I cannot agree with those that say it is not art however. How do we define art in any word? Art is to everyone as they see it, you cannot classify it as to say that any form of creation of substance is ART or not ART, to every single person on the planet there are differances that they enjoy and thoughts they have on what the world conciders ART. Thus, no one person can say that ANYTHING is or is not ANYTHING. Because everyone will have a differant viewpoint. Life 101. I personally believe it is art, some of the intricate detail to works i have seen are more spectacular and wondeful then paintings in museums. With reguards to the legality or nonlegality of it, or its charge of vandalisim, yes it is, but have you ever traveled over 5 miles above the speed limit? have you every sped up at a yellow light? You break the rules when we see it as ok. There are consequences to there actions if caught, if so let them face them. just as we all would if caught breakign the law. To argue one point and not look at ourselves and what we do illegal can definitly be a shortcoming of aome folks here at this forum.

JimRankin on June 30, 2005 at 4:04 am

“Two wrongs don’t make a ‘right,’” as the old saying goes, and Ichabod here tries to convince us that if we do anything even slightly illegal such as he mentions, then we cannot argue against anything else being wrong or illegal. Such is obvious RATIONALIZATION, the method of excusing our misconduct by trying to attach some sort of moral or aesthethic value to it. Wrong is wrong and illegal no matter how artistic it may seem. Yes, some of the perpetrators do show artistic talent, but that is as wasted as the ‘genius’ who has a bad day and walks into a store and blasts people away and then some misguided ‘bleeding hearts’ appeal for mercy on him because he is a ‘genius’ in other ways and should be rehabilitated for the ‘good of society.’ Every year we hear on the news of some talented ‘genius’ who was released from prison as being renewed for social responsibility and then this very one is found committing some henious crime yet again.

What this nation needs is MORALS, not rationalizations. As long as we say ‘he was just a misguided youth’ and sob into our handkerchiefs, we will continue to have such vandalism as graffiti —which will inevitably lead to greater crimes, if not by their author, then by those who see his works befouling just any and every structure he can, with no firm prison sentance given. The only real value in a human being is Responsibility to righteousness and the mature Discipline that goes along with it, in accord with God’s perfect Laws. At the root of this permissive behaviour is ignorance of God, and that blame falls maninly on parents, not that they are any excuse for their childrens' misbehaviour. Short of this we have only talented youths growing up with no respect for anything, and convinced that they can always use their ‘talents’ to rationalize their way around justice and have the ‘bleeding hearts’ who unwittingly bring down our society by not demanding the equivalent of “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.” Thus does justice begin, and society (rather than selfish individuals) prosper. While there is no such thing as a perfect human society on earth today, one has but to look at China or Japan where graffiti is virtually unknown due to the sure and certain knowledge of a swift retribution by the state, to see examples of how society can expect justice = no grafiti. It is as it says in the Bible: “But if you are doing what is bad, be in fear: for it is not without purpose that it [the state] bears the sword; for it is God’s minister [here meaning ‘helper’], an avenger to express wrath upon the one practicing what is bad.” (Romans 13:4)

Ichab0d on June 30, 2005 at 5:14 am

I was not stating that the people who practice this are not doing somethign illegal and should be punished, i was simply stating that to many it does not apear to be art, this is not true, it is. Also, i was saying that before we extract the straw from there eye let us look upont he rafter in our own. None are perfect in this world, and yes, if they are caught let there be judgement upon them i say, but to say all of these thigns and to overlook our own misguidings is to defeat the principles even found in the scriptures if we choose to quote scriptures. And even in that is says no man may direct hsi step, so how can we say we know what is art or vandal or the like? We cannot judge them. They cannot judge us. Let them be, if they are caught, then we shall see, but if they are not, then, may it be as when we speed, or when we dont use a turn signal, or when we do something illegal. Because everybody has or does at times. This paticular time is theres.

JimRankin on June 30, 2005 at 5:58 am

The point is that vandalism IS vandalism: the illegal desecration of someone else’s property without permission. It is a legal definition, NOT an artistic one. Even the Mona Lisa painted upon someone else’s property without permission would be vandalism. To this extent, man should direct his step [Jeremiah 10:23], and carefully, and would herein have full approval of his Creator in doing so. So it is not a matter of taking the ‘rafter out our eyes’ before finding the straw in the vandals' eyes [Matthew 7:3]; it is simply a matter of following Bibically-based law. Call it ‘art’ if you like, but it remains what it is: VANDALISM.

wmenzo on December 23, 2005 at 3:14 pm

it is no surprise that an honest voice, would be stomped out…or should i say buffed. it is terrible that an open discussion board is filtered, and the freedom to express personal views is slanted (only one way). everyone has to put up with the vulgar ignorance that is stated throughout this post, yet is denied the rite to understand a contrasting idea-a first hand experienced idea. this post is whack, i shouldnt have even bothered submitting such honesty. no this is not the place for honesty, honesty is in the streets, written on the walls. if you want to hear me speek. that is where Ill be; I invite you to listen.

JohnStockton on December 7, 2007 at 11:36 am

Perhaps this debate needs a little insight from the other perspective. I am a Graf Artist and I may just speak for my area but all the guys who do it where I am don’t target store fronts and public icons. We so for the old run down abandoned buildings and junkyards and or out of use trains. Theres a difference between vandalism and graf even though both are illegal. Theres a different mindset for graf artist than just people who happen to have spray paint at their disposal and want to destroy something. Graf dosn’t have the goal of destruction but expression hence we choose the areas we do, I’m just saying that there needs to be a distinction between these two very different groups.

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