Flint Murals Show Transformative Power of Community Art

Street artist Slim created this mural outside of Buckham Gallery in downtown Flint. (Photo by Patrick Hayes)

Joe Schipani and Sandra Branch heard a common frustration from Flint, Michigan, residents at neighborhood and community meetings: blight. Their solution? Find artists from all over the world to paint 100 murals in the city in Flint by 2021.

“Things like blight overshadow a lot of positive things in Flint’s neighborhoods,” says Schipani, executive director of the Flint Public Art Project, a local nonprofit that reclaims unused spaces to celebrate art and culture within the city. “A lot of neighborhoods are doing cleanups, creating little pocket parks, trying to make their neighborhoods better. After hearing from them we said, ‘How do we bring people out to see all of this?’”

The project has painted more than 70 murals already, with 20 more planned to go up October 7 through 12 for the Free City Mural Festival, the city’s first mural festival. The idea for the project was inspired by a desire expressed by residents to show a different side of the city than what is often portrayed in media.

Flint has served as a national symbol for virtually every Rust Belt affliction since the 1980s. The city is still in the midst of recovering from the water crisis, a 2014 infrastructure, water poisoning and public health catastrophe caused by a cost-cutting decision made by a state-appointed emergency manager. Prior, the city was infamous for unemployment due to dwindling manufacturing jobs, population decline and high crime rates (recently a central theme in the 2018 Netflix series “Flint Town”).

“’Flint Town’ made it seem like crime and violence is all Flint is,” says Branch, vice president of the Flint Public Art Project. “But there’s beauty in Flint. There’s resiliency here, and healing here, and grassroots efforts to reclaim neighborhoods. Flint has amazing history. It was one of the first planned cities in America. It has always been integrated. Urban integration and equal housing started here.”

What has resulted is Flint has become a major destination for street art. Artists have come from the U.K., Spain, Brazil and all over the United States, among other places.

“There’s street art all around the United States and all around the world,” Schipani says. “But on this level? We’ve had a lot of great artists come here, so it’s kind of neat that work being done here is getting seen internationally.”

Flint Public Art Project covers airfare and provides lodging for artists at Schipani’s home. The community takes care of the rest.

“Flint is being Flint,” Branch says. “People are coming out, they’re meeting the artists, they’re telling them how wonderful the artwork is, and saying that we love you coming to our city. There’s no cultural barrier here, it’s a family.”

A previously blank wall above a downtown Flint deli now features a mural created by Flint artist Kevin “Scraps” Burdick. (Photo by Patrick Hayes)

The murals have also been a welcome complement to other ventures in the city. Emily Doerr, a Flint resident, started Flint City Bike Tours in the spring of 2019. Doerr launched the business with similar motivations to those fueling the mural project — a desire to show off Flint’s unique and often hidden beauty.

“I like to just look at Flint,” Doerr says. “There’s so much space. Everything was built around cars, so it’s not this dense city. You can go for an hour bike ride and get to see stuff you would never see driving because it’s so spread out. I just want to get people biking around Flint, and see parts of Flint and feel comfortable.”

Doerr began offering six tour routes, showing varying features and distances. Themes include automotive history, parks and trails, new economic development initiatives, bars and restaurants and simply unique Flint landmarks. But the murals have made her public art tour her most successful.

“My murals tour has been the most popular bike tour,” Doerr says. “I have led 11 tours this summer, and seven of those have been focused on the murals.”

There are murals spread out in all areas of the city, adding plenty of options for routes. Doerr notes that Flint already has a bike-friendly layout for cyclists of all experience levels.

“Flint’s really flat, easy to bike on, and there’s miles and miles of trails,” Doerr says. “The infrastructure was made for 250,000 people and we have 100,000 now, so we have a lot of four-lane roads that only need to be two lanes given our current traffic. Biking in Flint is pleasant and easy.”

Other community organizations have also found shared traits with the mural project. Megan Heyza, who lives in Flint’s historic Carriage Town neighborhood, runs a nonprofit called The Porch Project. The organization uses porch repairs and beautification as a mechanism for promoting increased use of front yards and neighborhood engagement.

“[The murals] really bring light into the neighborhoods,” Heyza says. “People will be out walking and will just see one and stop. They cause interaction. The murals have really brought out the beauty of Flint.”

Some have also directly engaged residents in their creation. In Flint’s Civic Park neighborhood, three kids were recruited from a summer camp to assist in painting a mural by Magda Love, a New York-based muralist and activist. Among other accolades, Love is creating the largest mural in New York City history. Her Joy Tabernacle mural in Flint celebrates unity and showcases Civic Park’s triumph over past and present hardships. It depicts vibrant colors, flowers and plants, children representing the neighborhood, and a pair of open hands.

Local and statewide artists have also been able to work alongside international muralists in the city. Schipani notes that local artists have been hired for projects in other communities as a result of work they’ve contributed to in Flint. Flint’s murals have been used in artists’ portfolios to promote mural festivals around the world. Kobra Paint, an Italian paint manufacturer, is also a partner with Flint Public Art Project and has used work that includes contributions from local artists in promotional materials globally.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Branch says. “[Local artists] get to work alongside these artists and get better, and they’re also getting job opportunities.”

“The art is making Flint more friendly, bringing more people into town,” Branch adds.

There is currently a crowdfunding campaign to help support the Free City Mural Festival, which will feature tours, live music, food trucks and artists working to complete at least 20 more murals. Funds raised will also help Flint Public Art Project continue next year.

“People are coming to Flint to look at the art and they’re recognizing there’s so much more going on here,” Schipani says. “It has helped the economy of some of these small businesses and it’s brought new people here. We had a guy from Pennsylvania come here to see the murals. He was looking at the one at the Hispanic Tech Center on a day when they happened to be doing a food giveaway, and he was so inspired that he donated $100 cash to them.”

But most importantly, for Flint residents who have lived through the water crisis and the negative perceptions of the city for years, the murals simply offer hope and inspiration.

“The international scale just shows kids here you can do anything,” Heyza says. “The murals are a great example. They show anyone that if you have any idea to impact the community, it is completely doable.”

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

Patrick Hayes is a freelance writer and reporter based in Flint, Michigan.

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