Muskegon, an Art Center for the State of Michigan, Has an Antiseptic Attitude Toward Street Art.

Steve Jobs by Banksy

Saturday, I drove by the old location of the Muskegon Farmer’s Market and all buildings and shelters had been knocked flat. It might seem like a silly objection and yet it should be said. The out building where the market master worked had several murals of moderate accomplishment. Were reference pictures at least taken? I took snaps of each one in 2012, but these were not reference photographs.

We’ve had a few name artists come up in Muskegon since 1964 and these could have been juvenalia, early work by a hand that became great. This is only one example of Muskegon allowing local art history to slip through their fingers. A remarkable mural was covered up during the facade project at Marine Tap Room depicted old Lakeside. Mural celebrating the glory days of the Sardine Room also vanished under a coat of black paint. Waiters singing around the dining room, the cartoonish work of Lee Suckow, a local, showed up on a special edition of the plates.

Started by community activist, Renae Hesselink, I was in a recent conversation about street art and its power to raise real estate prices. Call it the Banksy effect, Banksy the ultra-private stencil painter who strikes in the night, leaving paintings worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Muskegon is going to have trouble attracting a Banksy if the city keeps “disappearing” our street art as if it were of no value.

It’s time when I can confess. I even trafficked more than once in the city’s street art scene two summers ago while serving as the self-styled, “Art Market Manager” at the Muskegon Farmer’s Market. My good friend, Dan Parker, created a stencil of philanthropist Patricia B. Johnson, the woman who built the Community Foundation for Muskegon County into a non-profit powerhouse that felt like a West Michigan mini of the Mott Foundation in Flint.

Parker and I researched photographs of Johnson, and we found one of her smiling, enjoying coffee, wearing her pearls. She reminded us in that picture of the iconic portraits of Betty Ford, who we lost around the same time. We knew that that the Third Street traffic circle with the statue “Muskegon, Together Rising” had a sign declaring it “Patricia B. Johnson” circle. We found the red sign with white letter to be less than aesthetic.

In fact, we were driven by the fact that Betty Ford had twice been honored by street art in Grand Rapids. Betty Ford’s iconic hair had become a stencil and tee shirt design. During ArtPrize, an anonymous artist had immortalized Jerry and Betty on the Fulton Street exposure of The Bob. We wanted to make our Pat Muskegon’s answer to Betty in Grand Rapids. We felt our street art communicated the big message, “Pat Johnson” was everywhere in town. When you consider that all of Muskegon elementary schools are covered by the Muskegon Promise, Johnson’s plan to send all students to college on scholarship, Pat really is everywhere.

So Parker and a fellow tagger trained on the streets of New York City set out and tagged a concrete wall of the Holiday Inn parking structure. The tag went without notice for three months. Since I had an ongoing dialog with a professional at the Community Foundation, I dropped a hint to her in an email. The very next day, the tag had been found and sandblasted. One can still see the traces of the sandblasting, two years later, which left a smidgen of paint. Sorry, friends, but whomever ordered sandblasting, the knee jerk reaction failed to weigh and consider a genuine act of admiration. The stencil has now found a dumpster.

This isn’t a rare occasion the City of Muskegon has knee jerked on street art. Artists at the YMCA created a tire sculpture called “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. When the YMCA was “moved” from their location on Lake Muskegon, the sculpture had to be moved. Now don’t get me going on the machinations behind the loss of a YMCA facility. I’m not proud of it and I had nothing to do with it. The sculpture was moved by Lora Swenson to a garden near the Shell Station, a place where she teaches mostly African American children how to garden, a program organized by First Congregational Church and a number of historically African-American Churches.

Think about that. It was built by the Young Man’s Christian Association. It was moved to land owned by the Congregational Church. It was intended to assist in the mission of “Love on Another” by teaching the miracle of “Loaves and Fishes”, making abundance by gardening from mere seeds. One might actually call it a religiously inspired sculpture and an ecumenical one at that. Flagged by SAFEbuilt as trash, in the end, the city threatened First Congregational with fines and the sculpture ended up recycled at Bandag Tire, costing the congregation seventy-five dollars for disposal fees.

This doesn’t even touch the issue of the city disrespecting a leading activist, Swenson, daughter of a favorite local doctor, alumni staffer of Every Woman’s Place and coordinator of children’s sailing lessons at the Yacht Club. Swenson had her community garden ripped up when the city built spec homes on Houston too. Personal note: Swenson is my friend and my land lord.

I like Frank Peterson, the celebrated City Manager who has had a nice raise in pay since he came to town. I liked taking walks around Muskegon with him during his first months, a time honored tradition begun by city activist and Toronto’s favorite citizen, Jane Jacobs. Jacobs was honored recently by a Google Doodle, and I wish the same kudos for Frank Peterson. I am impressed with his refurbishing a beautiful Pine Baron mansion on Jefferson Street near the high school, a home that will certainly take real estate values upward in that neighborhood. However, I might be sending him a schedule to the Muskegon Museum of Arts and a reading list. We had a communication over the “Hungry Caterpillar”, and I found myself wondering if the man from Kalamazoo spent enough time at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts.

I wrote about our street art issue first when the city sandblasted a tag on a concrete wall along the lakeshore walk and bike trail along Lake Muskegon. A tagger named Blue had a great spray paint tag and the city sandblasted it after a few days. I know of two additional tags that the city or county will never locate, one on a barrier where a street ends in Glenside. The second has hopes of lasting for years on a railroad trestle over Cress Creek near the Business US-31 gateway. I am giving no more hints.

My heart feels an inspiration, touched with anarchy, when I see these Blue tags endure. I remember my time learning street art by following the examples of famous Detroiters, Topher Crowder and Tyree Guyton. Crowder, last I knew, enjoyed painting on the beach near his home close to Pere Marquette Beach. However, as for bringing his street art game to Muskegon, he said, “It would be like shooting a deer in a deer park, and I do not feel like being a deer in the night vision goggles”. That’s a paraphrase that I’m fairly certain my friend Crowder would allow.

Thinking I need a face-to-face with Commissioners Ken Johnson and Debra Warren, the Camelot Commissioners, on policy for dealing with street art and perhaps even a position on the city’s payroll for an art professional. Some check and balance needs to be in place to say what incidental art stays or goes. In the meantime, the board of the Muskegon Area Arts Council await any chance to help the city shape an arts policy friendly to street art. That said, I have served on that board for three years this April.

Will Juntunen

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