By Erick Trickey
The boy looked back at me, his eyes defiant. Dressed in head-to-toe black, he was standing in a Detroit police station, holding evidence of his crime: a paint can and a brush daubed with the same red as the words painted on the wall behind him.
The boy was the creation of Banksy, the secretive British street artist, who’d visited Detroit in 2010 and painted him on a wall of the Packard Plant, the city’s largest, most symbolic ruin. “I remember when all this was trees,” the red letters next to the boy read – but what was the “all this”? The Packard Plant, devolving to dust? Or the city of Detroit itself, parts of it returning to urban prairie?
It was March 2013, and I was visiting the 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios, an art space in a decommissioned police station in southwest Detroit. The Banksy, on a 7-by-8-foot slab of cinder blocks, stood by the front doors. The gallery’s directors, Carl Goines and Monte Martinez, had cut the artwork out of the Packard Plant in May 2010 to save it from likely destruction. Now, they were telling me how they interpreted the painting.“I remember when all this was trees” could be a metaphor for the factory’s jobs, Martinez suggested. “There used to be a whole infrastructure of people working there, and they’re all gone. So are the trees people? Or are the trees trees?”
“You could plant this anywhere in Detroit,” Goines said. “The city’s been rebuilt, reshaped, rivers buried. It’s nothing like it ever was.”
My visit came during a period of calm and quiet triumph for the 555 Gallery. Goines and Martinez had put the Banksy in storage soon after taking it, to hide it from angry street-art devotees who thought 555 had ruined the painting by hauling it out of the plant. They’d also fended off a lawsuit by the Packard Plant’s absentee owners, who’d emerged from foggy elusiveness to argue that 555 had stolen their property. Now, the lawsuit was resolved, with 555 gaining clear title to the Banksy, and it was on public display, encased in a plastic cover to protect it from vandals.
Most writers who’d tackled the story of the Packard Plant Banksy had focused on whether 555 had broken the rules of street art by moving it. Though I appreciated the idea that graffiti is like a Buddhist sand mandala, meant to be vulnerable to whitewashing and the ravages of time, I was most interested in what the saga of the Detroit Banksy said about Detroit. Goines and Martinez hadn’t just grabbed and preserved an intriguing artwork. They’d created a sort of performance art that provoked questions about a city where the concept of ownership can break down, where great landmarks, architecture and even art can suffer and decay because they exist in a no-man’s-land of abandonment.The questions of who owns a neglected ruin and who owns art left on a ruin were provocative enough when Goines and Martinez grabbed the Banksy in 2010. They’re even moreso in 2015, now that the 555 Gallery has shipped the Banksy out of Detroit, put it up for auction, and sold it to a collector in Los Angeles.
The old police precinct on West Vernor Highway was an eerie place to talk about the legality of sawing, swiping, and saving art. The old authorities had left the place behind, and old rules had broken down inside. Artists had rented the jail cells as studios and stuffed them with drafting tables and desks. I peered through the bars of one cell at a painting of the Michigan Central Station, Detroit’s abandoned train terminal, against an orange sky. Just outside the cell block stood a poster about the United States’ mass incarceration rate.
An artwork in the narrow hallway was made of firing-range target papers found in the basement: Bullet holes pierced the target’s torso, while little frames embedded in the head, shoulder and hip held mementoes, humanizing the target. Goines and Martinez had converted the detectives’ offices into a photographer’s workspace, brightening the institutional rooms with orange and turquoise paint. Conference rooms had become workshop spaces for local kids, adults with cognitive impairments, veterans, and asylum-seekers sent by the nearby nonprofit Freedom House. The gallery had embraced the haunted postindustrial aesthetic common in Detroit art, given it an anarchic spark, and explored the eternal Detroit theme of a rise from the ashes.My tour of 555 ended at the Banksy, where Goines, quiet and careful, and Martinez, excited and brash, recounted how they’d come to claim it. One day in May 2010, they were in their old space down the street, pondering the future of their nonprofit gallery, when a tall, bald guy came in: a local urban photographer named Billy Voo.
“I’m trying to save this piece of art that’s in the Packard building,” Voo said. “Do you guys know anything about this graffiti artist Banksy?” They didn’t. Voo, a huge Banksy fan, filled them in.
Banksy, a mysterious British graffiti guerrilla and art outlaw, had become internationally famous, his paintings coveted and valuable. His documentary about his work, the ironically titled Exit Through the Gift Shop, had just opened in the Detroit area that weekend. Immediately afterward, Banksy’s website had posted photos of his latest stencil-and-spray-paint works, including the boy and his red-lettered message. Voo, who’d been exploring and photographing the Packard Plant for years, had recognized the location immediately.
The Packard Automotive Plant, a nearly 3-million-square-foot factory designed by renowned architect Albert Kahn, employed tens of thousands of workers to produce Packard cars from 1903 to 1956. After decades as a storage facility and a bit of time as a paintball arena, the massive plant had fallen into catastrophic disrepair, its broken windows looming over I-94. Fires in the plant had become common, and the Detroit fire department no longer fought them, judging the facility too dangerous to enter. Still, graffiti artists and urban explorers continued to brave the complex’s 47 unstable structures. In 2009, several people pushed a truck off the fourth floor of a Packard Plant building, just to film its crash.
“I called my neighbor who had a Bobcat. I said, ‘Hey, you want to help pull a piece of art?’”Banksy had painted his graffiti on a half-collapsed cinder block wall with a steel beam reaching across its top. Voo figured that scrappers, who were hauling steel out of the plant, would soon rip the beam down and knock the wall apart. He’d tried to contact the plant’s owner, a company named Bioresource, Inc., and hadn’t heard back. So he’d gone to the plant and approached the supervisor of a scrapping crew. Speaking as if he answered to the plant’s owner, the supervisor told Voo that section of the plant would soon be torn down, and the boss wouldn’t care if he took some graffiti.
“That was enough for us to say we had permission to go into this place and save this,” Goines told me. “Otherwise it’s abandoned. There was no reason to think we can’t.”
“I called my neighbor who had a Bobcat,” Martinez recalled. “I said, ‘Hey, you want to help pull a piece of art?’”
So Goines, Martinez, Voo, Goines’ father, and some artist friends headed into the plant on a Monday morning. They found the Banksy wall in a field of debris framed by empty buildings and not far from two shrubby little trees. The would-be art liberators built a wooden backing for the wall with scrap wood laying around the plant, then cut out the 7-by-8-foot slab with a concrete saw and an acetylene torch. They worked all day, had the artwork crated by 10:30 p.m., and hauled out the 1,500-pound piece the next morning.
Banksy’s visit to the Packard Plant was a meeting of heavyweights, a great-powers summit – a world-renowned graffiti artist painting a world-renowned ruin. Detroiters have been making art from abandonment for decades – at least since Tyree Guyton began the Heidelberg Project in 1986 and photo studies of the Michigan Central Station proliferated around town in the 1990s. Now, a famed British artist with a similar aesthetic had started a conversation with the city.The artwork stayed in the factory for only three days. Likely tagged on a Saturday, it was hauled out by the 555 guys the following Tuesday. When the news broke, defenders of street art blasted Goines and Martinez in the press and online, arguing that they’d violated the intent of the artist, who deliberately exposes his work to the vagaries of demolition and scavenge. In Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy (his face obscured to preserve his mystique) says he expects his art to have a short life span.
“He created this piece in the midst of demolition. The nature of the piece in that setting was such a social commentary, I just can’t fathom how someone could miss the point to such a degree that they’d remove it.”“He created this piece in the midst of demolition,” argued a commenter on the website Detroit Funk. “The nature of the piece in that setting was such a social commentary, I just can’t fathom how someone could miss the point to such a degree that they’d remove it.”
Billy Voo’s photographs of the Banksy in the Packard Plant leave no doubt that the art meant more in its original location. In a gallery, the viewer has to imagine the immensity of the Packard Plant’s 47 buildings and the symbolism of an auto factory in the Motor City laid to waste. In “all this was trees,” isn’t “all this” the ruin? That makes Banksy’s art a comment on the fall of Detroit, on Fordism’s might and hubris laid low.
On the other hand, Goines, Martinez, and Voo felt very few people would ever see the art if they didn’t take it. The Packard Plant is dangerous, filled with broken glass and unstable surfaces, a lawless spot where visitors have been mugged or carjacked. Voo, a Banksy devotee, didn’t share the purists’ view of street art. He saw the boy and his message as a major artwork that he wanted preserved for Detroiters to see.
Voo’s belief that it’d otherwise disappear or be destroyed is likely true. Four other Banksy works that appeared around Detroit at the same time are long gone. Some were painted over. A rat walking a tightrope, left on a building in the Detroit suburb of Warren, was displayed at a Manhattan gallery this year. A second Banksy in the Packard Plant, an image of a canary in a cage, appeared on eBay in 2010, apparently for sale by someone associated with the plant’s owner. It failed to sell and its current whereabouts are unknown.“Banksy being in Detroit was a historic moment in art history [and] a moment in Detroit history,” Goines told me. “It became more than just Banksy having been here and gone, and nothing remaining. There is something remaining and you can continue to bitch about it or support it and love it.”
Martinez thought it ridiculous that street art has conventions. “How can you say you are a graffiti artist and outside the law, and then someone steps outside your law, and you’re upset? Same thing, isn’t it?”
Goines and Martinez told the public they hadn’t taken the artwork for its resale value. “We’re not selling it, we’re protecting it,” Goines told the Metro Times in 2010. Still, the backlash was strong. Ten days after grabbing the artwork, and after receiving threats to destroy or deface it, Goines and Martinez took it off public view for more than a year.
The 555 guys’ true cleverness wasn’t that they’d tweaked the sensibilities of the street-art community. It was the rogue karmic justice they’d visited upon the absentee owner who’d let the Packard Plant crumble.
“How can you say you are a graffiti artist and outside the law, and then someone steps outside your law, and you’re upset? Same thing, isn’t it?”The 2010 Metro Times story about the controversy noted that a Banksy can fetch six figures in the art market. Soon after, Martinez said, a man who claimed to represent the plant’s owners visited 555. According to Martinez, the man, who never identified himself, proposed that the plant owners and the gallery team up to sell the Banksy.
“He says, ‘What we’ve gotta do is hype this up and sell it!’ and I go, ‘Sell it? This is for the city of Detroit,’” Martinez recalled.
So Bioresource sued the 555 Gallery, claiming that it owned the Packard Plant and therefore owned the Banksy, and that the supervisor whom Voo had talked to didn’t represent the company. “The acts of the defendants constitute an illegal conspiracy to take wrongful possession and control of the mural,” the suit alleged.
For years, the city of Detroit had battled with Bioresource over the Packard Plant’s ownership and condition. But the city had struggled to identify who controlled the company. The supposed owner, Dominic Cristini, was serving time in federal prison for dealing drugs. Then, in the lawsuit against 555, Bioresouce not only acknowledged it owned the plant, it identified land speculator Romel Casab as its president.
“Why would you guys want to come after us or even say anything?” Martinez recalled thinking. “This building’s a hazard to everyone who walks through. Why would you want to claim that?”The lawsuit quickly backfired. Karla Henderson, then Detroit’s buildings and safety engineering director, declared that the city would use the admissions in the lawsuit to hold Bioresource accountable for the property’s blight. (Henderson tells me she believes the city forced Bioresource’s owner to appear and answer citations, but the city never collected any money.)
In 2011, federal agents raided Casab’s home in connection with a drug investigation. (No charges were filed.) Goines figured it might be a good time to press Bioresource to back off.
“I called our lawyer – my uncle, doing all of the work pro bono — and said I think we might have a bit of leverage here, to get these guys off our back,” Goines recalled. Later in 2011, Bioresource settled its suit with 555, giving the gallery clear title to the Banksy for a mere $2,500.
It was an only-in-Detroit moment.It was an only-in-Detroit moment. First, Banksy created a sort of art protest against the Packard Plant’s neglect, decay, and ruin. Then, the 555 Gallery jumped into the void, amplified the protest, and gained a valuable artwork along the way.
In late 2011, 555 moved into the former police precinct and put the Banksy on display.
“We did know it was going to benefit our organization in some way,” Goines told me in 2013. “However it’s going to help, we’re going to do our best to have high integrity and deal with it in a way that we’re sharing, we’re not going to just reap benefits.” He added: “We didn’t sell it to the East Coast broker who’s buying up Banksys from around the world and putting them on the auction block. We haven’t done that.”
A lot can change in a year in Detroit. In March 2014, the 555 Gallery announced it was putting the Banksy up for sale and was looking for buyers. The decision, made by Goines and 555’s board of directors, set off another round of criticism. Martinez, who had left 555 by then, told the Metro Times he wasn’t in favor of selling the art. (Martinez did not respond to my request for a followup interview.)
I stopped by 555 in April 2014 for an open-mic night, and in between a young acoustic guitarist’s songs, I took another look around. The jail cells, still in use as studios, looked as lively as ever. But near the front door, the Banksy was pushed halfway into an alcove. The gallery no longer wanted it to be the center of attention.By then, Wayne County had seized the Packard Plant from Bioresource in a tax foreclosure. As 2013 ended, the county sold the complex to Peruvian developer Fernando Palazuelo for a mere $405,000. Palazuelo announced grand plans to renovate the 2.7-million-square-foot hulk into a mix of artists’ spaces, light industry, and apartments, funded by profits from his developments in Peru.
In summer 2014, Palazuelo proposed a satisfying ending to the Banksy saga: He offered 555 a promise of future artist space within the Packard Plant in exchange for bringing the Banksy back. The two sides met several times, but 555 didn’t take the deal.
“We talked about what our options could be, and it sounded like there were some good possibilities,” Goines told me this October, “but when it came to being able to follow through with that offer, it wasn’t something that was happening in a realistic timeline.”
Kari Smith, the Packard Plant Project’s director of development, said the company offered 555 a large space that could’ve been ready within a year and a half. She says the company didn’t ask 555 for ownership of the Banksy, just wanted it relocated back to the plant. “It was going positively, and they just stopped communication,” she said.
This March, 555’s lease of the old police station ended, and the nonprofit moved to temporary space at a studio on Detroit’s east side. In August, the nonprofit announced it would put the Banksy up for auction.The sale proceeds would fund the renovation of a new home, a 30,000-square-foot warehouse on East Warren Avenue that 555 had purchased in 2010. Julien’s Auctions of Beverly Hills, Calif., hired as the auctioneer, announced it anticipated the Banksy would sell for $200,000 to $400,000 — raising the possibility that the Packard Plant Banksy would sell for as much as the Packard Plant itself.
That didn’t happen. On Sept. 30, the Banksy sold for $137,500 to Steven Dunn, CEO of the Los Angeles-based baby-toy company Munchkin Inc.
Goines said 555 chose to auction the Banksy as part of a “hard decision about changing our priorities.” The old police station hadn’t worked out as a home, because gallery sales of artwork had brought in little income, and the costs of the building outweighed the nonprofit’s revenue. (In 2013, 555 reported a total budget of $78,516 and paid Goines, its executive director, $1,750.)
He said the Banksy’s sale should fund the first round of renovations at the 100-year-old warehouse, enough to open a portion of the former tobacco plant as 555’s new home. Goines wants to create spacious studios for industrial and fine arts and room for an artist-in-residence program, workshops and classes. The project is backed by the Michigan-based Kresge Foundation and the Minnesota-based nonprofit Artspace. Still, it’s an ambitious goal for a five-story building in a neighborhood, like many in Detroit, where so many houses have disappeared that trees now outnumber them. Goines says his early estimates suggest a complete renovation will cost at least $500,000.
“The benefit of selling it is coming back here, to the city of Detroit, and to a resource for the community. It’s still certainly a part of Detroit history.”I ask Goines why he would sell an artwork he’d called a piece of Detroit history to an out-of-town buyer. Goines says local galleries showed an interest in buying it, but 555 wasn’t able to come to satisfactory terms with them.
“The benefit of selling it is coming back here, to the city of Detroit, and to a resource for the community,” he said. “It’s still certainly a part of Detroit history. The narrative itself has really been to a large part what the piece has been about. It’s had this ongoing life to it beyond just its existence in the Packard Plant.
“As far as we’re concerned, it’s an investment in the arts community. We’re going to work toward adding to it over the next 10 or 15 years as we work on this project. It’s still a part of Detroit in that way.”
Since 2010, the Packard Plant’s renown has grown. It’s appeared in the action movie Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the indie vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive. It’s still an occasional magnet for rogue behavior. This summer, a photographer obtained permission from the Packard Plant Project to shoot inside, without mentioning his plans to bring along a tiger, a bobcat, and two wolves. The tiger got loose, and Internet video showed a guy, clearly in over his head, trying to tame it with a weed whacker.
This September, I drove through the Packard Plant on East Grand Boulevard to see what has changed under the new owner. A security guard sat in a van keeping watch, and signs promised a renovation and the familiar Detroit promise of renaissance. A banner prettified the brick bridge spanning the boulevard, where car bodies once moved toward the engine plant.Kari Smith says there’s a lot of progress you can’t see from the street. The company has hired Kahn and Associates, the plant’s original architect, for its planned renovation. A structural evaluation showed that 90 percent of the structures can be saved. Unstable structures have been razed, and 24-hour security has limited trespassing and cut the number of fires from near-daily to one in the last year or so. The company has letters of intent from two prospective tenants, for a go-kart track and a training center for the building trades. Later phases of the renovation will include a Packard museum, an artists’ live-work space, and apartments.
Smith hasn’t given up on bringing the Banksy back to the plant. She says the Packard Plant Project has contacted Munchkin, Inc., with an offer to buy the artwork.
“We feel the sale of the Banksy is a loss for the arts and culture of Detroit,” she says. “We think it’s an unfortunate step that wasn’t really for the benefit of Detroit, but for the benefit of the gallery.”
For people who care about Detroit’s history and culture, the auction is an ironic new turn in the Banksy saga. When 555 asserted that it had the right to claim the Banksy because it was abandoned, the gallery not only preserved the art, it brought attention to the fact that someone needed to preserve the Packard Plant itself.
But now, by selling the artwork, 555 benefits from jumping into that ambiguous situation five years ago. You can’t say it profited, because 555 is a non-profit, but it’s still somewhere between selfless and selfish.Should abandoned property become community property? That’s the way it works when tax-foreclosed land, homes and factories devolve to public ownership long enough to be resold. And the Packard Plant’s tax auction (in which unserious bidders offered the lowest bids but couldn’t produce the cash) raised the question of whether Detroit needs to hold more tax-foreclosed land in public land banks.
On a much smaller scale, more cultural than legal, the Banksy grab was easier to accept when 555 was treating the art as a sort of community property held in trust. It’s harder to accept a case of finders-keepers, of possession as nine-tenths of the law.
The website for Julien’s Auctions called the Packard Plant “a wasteland of crumbling concrete, glass and steel, and a symbol of ongoing hardship in the economically and socially mired city.” True enough. It also called the Banksy “a statement on the negative effects of industrialization” and “the loss of nature and deforestation” — a too-literal interpretation that’s only plausible once you’ve already moved the artwork 3,000 miles from its home. The boy, dressed like a ninja, a paint can in hand, looks like a city kid, too young to truly remember when all of Detroit was trees. In fact, all of us are too young to remember.
In a private collection in California, what does “I remember when all this was trees” even mean? The Banksy only makes sense as a piece of Detroit, a city trying to respond to massive abandonment, a city that’s growing trees again where there used to be homes, a city hoping to grow again.
Erick Trickey, who grew up near Detroit, is a senior writer at Boston Magazine and a former writer and editor at Cleveland Magazine. You can find him online at ericktrickey.com and on Twitter at @ericktrickey.
Banner photo by billyvoo.
Don’t miss a thing in the world of Belt by signing up for our weekly newsletter: http://bit.ly/1Qto86t