Category: Michigan
Author: Michael DeFranceschi • Published

Graffiti Alley in Ann Arbor Sucks Now. Here's Why [2024]

The public space sucks now but it can get better...
Graffiti Alley Ann Arbor main corridor in 2024 in downtown Ann Arbor off East Liberty Street.

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Graffiti Alley is losing its artistic integrity.

It is not pretentious to hold a public corridor of spray-paintings to a standard. Graffiti can be art.

Since 1999, this alleyway has functioned as a creative collaborative collage of drawings, text, and colorful designs which has enticed thousands of locals and visitors to downtown Ann Arbor.

Graffiti Alley showed to the world there was more to Ann Arbor than academics and athletics. There was artistry, as well.

Sadly, as I've witnessed in my recent visits to Ann Arbor in early 2024, much of this public space has been tarnished by puerile fiends whose phallic and scatological contributions are reducing Graffiti Alley to a decoration you'd expect to see in a dystopian film like Idiocracy.

Ann Arbor deserves better.

IN THIS ARTICLE...

Graffiti Alley in Ann Arbor Sucks Now. Here's Why [2024]

History of Graffiti Alley

Graffiti Alley Ann Arbor wall back in 2022
A wall along the main corridor of Graffiti Alley back in 2022.

While the discrete alleyway connecting East Liberty Street and Washington Street is known as 'Graffiti Alley' presently, the locale used to go by the names of 'Poet's Alley' and 'Bubble Gum Alley'.

Prior to 1999, this area of downtown Ann Arbor had a less-than-stellar reputation. I am assuming since the troubled city block was a stone's throw from University of Michigan's Central Campus, the city of Ann Arbor chose to make an effort to revitalize the space.

In their attempt to draw more visitors to the area, the city of Ann Arbor commissioned an artist by the name of Katherine Cost to design a mural. The mural was entitled 'Infinite Possibilities', spanned 5,000 square feet, and took five months to complete.

As I was conducting online research for this article, I did my best to find a photograph of Cost's mural. Despite reading that many news periodicals and art blogs wrote about the mural, I was unsuccessful in tracking down an image.

I'm a travel blogger, not an investigative journalist, so if you happen to possess a photograph of Cost's mural, please feel free to contact me. I will, of course, give you credit for providing me the image!

Reception to the mural must have been lukewarm, at best, since within mere weeks of the mural's debut, local artists defaced it with graffiti. Within five months, the entire mural was painted over.

Initially perceived as petty vandalism, people eventually appreciated what was unfolding-- a crowdsourced effort by the people of Ann Arbor to beautify the space.

As the 21st century unraveled, the public space took on the name 'Graffiti Alley' due to all the artists using spray paint. Graffiti Alley soon became a mainstay for Ann Arbor's street art scene, and a highlight for Michigan city tourism.

Graffiti Alley was better just a couple years ago

Graffiti Alley Ann Arbor back in 2022. This is the entrance off E Liberty St in downtown Ann Arbor.
This portion of Graffiti Alley in 2024 near Washington Street is no longer there. Shame.

Back in 2022, there were two ways you could enter Graffiti Alley-- either off E Liberty Street or off Washington Street.

The above image features a passageway closer to the Washington entrance. As you can see, it was a terrific location to pose for pictures.

As of April 2024, the entire section of Graffiti Alley facing Washington is closed off. Everytime I've gone there, there's been trucks impeding my path. That's a significant portion of the Ann Arbor attraction people can no longer explore.

Graffiti Alley Ann Arbor back in 2022. This is the entrance off E Liberty St in downtown Ann Arbor.
The entrance to Graffiti Alley back when I visited in 2022.

Pictured above is the entrance from East Liberty Street.

The entryway has a low ceiling. Both walls, the ground, and ceiling have graffiti. You can't help but walk slow and admire the encompassing artwork.

Look at the picture again. See the brown humanoid thing on the left (forgive me for not knowing the reference, if there is one)? The pumpkins near him? Or the wide bubbly text on the right?

To draw these well requires a degree of talent and years of practice. They're valuable to us onlookers because we know that not just anyone could replicate it. This is one metric many people use to determine the quality of art.

How about the names in white text against the black background on the left? They're from the #BLM movement. While the display is easier to replicate, there is still deeper meaning as to why the names are there. Real art represents large and abstract ideas.

Graffiti Alley Ann Arbor back in 2022.
Back in 2022 when there was actual art in the alleyway.

Once you exit the entryway, you advance outdoors into the main part of Graffiti Alley. Look at the eclectic mix of art. This is culture. This is community. Human beings are social creatures who are drawn to excellence.

And even if graffiti isn't your thing (which is totally fine), you still have to acknowledge that not just anyone can produce this.

So, what's wrong with Graffiti Alley in 2024?

Graffiti Alley in 2024

Graffiti Alley Ann Arbor in 2024.
Count how many times the word 'FARTS' is written.

Sure, who among us hasn't found flatulence funny at some point in our lives?

But to spray paint it almost everywhere-- in a public space devoted to human creativity-- is outright obnoxious.

It's ironic, given how Graffiti Alley first came into being by painting over someone else's mural. However, the artists in 1999 replaced Cost's mural with something better. In 2024, writing 'FARTS' over the artwork has made the overall space worse.

Earlier, I stated one dimension that gives art value is how easy it can be replicated. If anyone can do what you do with no experience and no skill, then what you do is just not valuable. Anyone can spray paint 'FARTS' on a wall.

Street art in Graffiti Alley in downtown Ann Arbor.
Entrance to Graffiti Alley in 2024.

See? The word 'FARTS' is on both sides of the wall at the East Liberty Street entrance.

Defiling Graffiti Alley like this makes it more difficult for other people to use this space. It's a public space. Musicians and models will find it tougher to do photoshoots here. High school seniors will find it challenging to do their senior pictures here.

Then, of course, the group of most concern to me are... other travelers! As of 2024, sure, I would still in good conscience recommend visitors to Ann Arbor to at least check out Graffiti Alley, but my enthusiasm as of now is less high.

Conclusion

Let's end this article on some hope.

Graffiti Alley is an ever-evolving concrete landscape for artists to contribute to. Perhaps by the end of 2024, other graffiti artists will spray paint over the juvenile desolation.

And if in the coming months or years I see that Graffiti Alley has changed for the better, I'll update the title of my article to something neutral or something more positive.

As someone who has lived in Michigan most of his life and who visits Ann Arbor frequently, I still think the city has plenty to offer its visitors visually.

Besides Graffiti Alley, there are several murals throughout the city, not to mention some pretty cool sculptures!

If you're an artist reading this, I hope you or some people you know will help restore Graffiti Alley to its former glory. Great art makes people happy. It enriches our lives.

What do you think of the current condition of Graffiti Alley? I love hearing from my readers so feel free to email me and share your opinions!