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Detroit’s BLKOUT Walls Mural Festival Invites Artists to Paint the City’s Streets

Detroit’s new BLKOUT Walls Mural Festival invites artists to come and paint the city’s streets.

When you think of Detroit, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Perhaps you think of Motown and how the city saw this iconic label’s first recording studio and headquarters. Maybe you think of Detroit’s history as having once been a booming hub for the automotive industry, which eventually caused the city’s economy and housing market to take a major hit, forcing natives to abandon their homes and businesses and leave the city. Or, maybe you think of the influence of African American culture wrapping its arms around the city, breathing life into Detroit’s culture and culinary scenes. Whatever you think of, there is beauty to be found in this historic Michigan city.

“Welcome to the D!” native Detroiters will say in a soulful voice that makes travelers feel immediately welcome. “There’s so much love here. It’s so much family here—especially if you are a Black traveler or a traveler of color. If you come here, you’re going to feel like you’re down the street from your cousins, wherever you are,” muses Sydney G. James, a Detroit native and one of the founders of the BLKOUT Walls Mural Festival.

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The BLKOUT Walls Mural Festival is an inaugural biannual Black-led mural festival that launched in James’ hometown of Detroit. The festival was a week-long event that took place between July 24th and July 31st this past summer. It was friendship and the lack of visibility of BIPOC artists at major mural festivals that fueled friends Sydney G. James, Thomas “Detour” Evans, and Max Sansing to plan Detroit’s first Black-led mural festival, which brought locals and art lovers from around the country to gather in Detroit’s North End neighborhood. Starting from 9000 Oakland Avenue to 7696 East Grand Blvd, the festival featured Nepali muralist Sneha “Imagine” Shrestha.

“We always get so excited when we see a Black muralist in an exclusively white space [in the art world],” says Sansing, a native Chicago fine artist and muralist.

“We always get so excited when we see a Black muralist in an exclusively white space [in the art world].”

That excitement and lack of diverse representation at mural festivals led James, Evans, and Sansing to form a team of artists and organizers—including Birdcap, Che Anderson, Laura Milanes, and Lex Draper—to create what is now known as the BLKOUT Walls Mural Festival. The festival featured about 20 artists from across the country—who primarily identify as Black and people of color—who arrived in Detroit to paint buildings in every color imaginable.

“It’s a family reunion,” explains Nepali muralist Imagine, who traveled from Boston to be a featured artist at the inaugural BLKOUT Walls Festival.

Nepali muralist, Sneha “Imagine” ShresthaLamar Landers

The event featured artist talks, a block party open to the community, and panel discussions. BLKOUT Walls Mural Festival attendees could walk down the street from the first day of the festival, witnessing artists’ initial sketches on each wall or freehand illustrations come to life before their eyes. During the week, muralists would often stop and talk to the community as they walked or drove by complimenting, critiquing, or asking questions about their work.

Sansing collaborated with Boston muralist and arts educator, ProBlak, on a wall that showcased Afro-futurism in deep hues of sea blue, orange, and colors mirroring the Pan African flag. Black women’s afros were strikingly painted on the side of the building, making it hard to ignore.

Lamar Landers

As you follow the BLKOUT Walls mural map and stroll down each block, you are immediately captivated by powerful images of Black people exhibiting infectious joy and power in their being captured on the abandoned building walls of Detroit. Paintings of faces of the known and unknown humans leave onlookers curious about the background story of each person the artists decided to paint.

Looking into the eyes of the individuals painted on each wall, onlookers may wonder, what do they fear? What do they aspire to be or hope for? Stories written through paint strokes in canary yellow, tangerine, and deep violet tones will intoxicate any lover of art. What is equally intriguing are the stories of artists, including Detroit Black trans and non-binary artist BakPak Durden, who decided to paint a self-portrait of themselves displaying freedom in one’s body.

“[As] public artists, we are the tellers of the time. Public art is a way to boost whatever message you want to put out there in the world. Give it to the people,” says James.

In addition to giving art to the people of Detroit, James wants to contribute to help ensure artists are taken seriously and paid for their contributions to make the world a better place.

“We have to circulate the creative economy,” adds James. “There is no product that exists that didn’t start with an artist’s hand. Not a sock, not a shoe, so what we are doing is reversing that type of culture [assuming artists work for free].”

One of the festival founders, Sydney JamesLamar Landers

The artist’s hands included internationally renowned Mexican artist Victor “Marka27” Quiñone, who painted one of Detroit’s most prolific murals of hip-hop legendary producer J Dilla, entitled “Dilla is Forever.”

“We don’t have a J Dilla mural that is a staple in the city. I think people are going to travel in to see that wall,” says James.

Marka27 partnered with Mississippi muralist, Birdcap, who blessed his mural and painted the infamous donut on the Dilla mural. Birdcap, an organizer of the BLKOUT WALLS festival, blessed a wall of his own located on a vacant building on 952 Clay Street in the North End neighborhood of Detroit with a colorful mural featuring cartoon-inspired characters. He freestyled the mural in 90-degree humid weather while a local Detroit woman barbecued ribs on the grill behind him.

One of the festival founders, Thomas “Detour” EvansLamar Landers

As you can imagine, planning an inaugural festival was not an easy task. Still, James, who Sansing says was the “boots on the ground,” handled the administrative side of organizing the festival. She leveraged her relationships with the city, which inspired them to add support with buffing and prepping the walls. The BLKOUT Walls Festival received support from the Knight Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Detroit Pistons, Ford Foundation, and Vans to help with funding the festival.

“Sydney did a lot of the footwork. You can basically say it was her event,” says Sansing.

And how does one pull off an inaugural mural festival during a pandemic? Well, Sydney G. James has the perfect recipe: a mix of proper funding, a good administrative and on-the-ground team, social media and web management, fundraising, and strong partnerships.

Lamar Landers

Now that the BLKOUT Walls are alive in the streets of Detroit, the founders’ hope is to expand the festival to cities like Chicago, Memphis, and Boston—although Detroit will always be BLKOUT’s hometown.

James is set to publish a commemorative BLKOUT Walls book volume 1 in the near future. “We’ll be selling [the book], and all proceeds will go towards the festival production. [The book] will be released before Christmas and feature the walls and bios of the artists,” explains James.

Although so much has been stripped away from Detroit over the years, you can never take the city’s spirit away or its vast contributions to American history. James says that as long as the building owners and the community preserve the murals, the art will remain visible for the world to enjoy.