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Visual Culture: Tyree Guyton on the Heidelberg Project

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

Tyree Guyton, maverick artist and social activist, founded the Heidelberg Project - a stretch of abandoned properties turned mammoth art installation - on Detroit's East Side in 1986. At the advice of his grandfather, Guyton turned to painting as a form of therapy. Without permission from the city of Detroit, he began decorating a two-block stretch of neighborhood. A move that saw his work featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, lauded across the art world, and condemned at home - the city's political machine razing the project twice before Guyton won a legal battle that would see the project preserved and ultimately expanded by fellow citizens who supported his efforts.

“The two times the city tore down I was on trial. I was fined and arrested. My case went to the local Supreme Court in Michigan, and I refused to take the project apart,” he said. “When I was fighting city government I told the city council that I was going to polka dot the whole city if they should demolish the project again. The city came over in ’99 and demolished the project again and I went out and I began to polka dot the whole city.”

Guyton continues to work as a painter and sculptor based in Detroit, exhibiting at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and a more recent residency at Bäsel, Switzerland. Though grateful for the opportunity to spread his message across the world, he recognizes the value of the initial struggle and what his own evolution has meant for that of the Heidelberg Project.

“Every genre of artistic endeavor comes with a price,” he said. “You have to educate the world; it takes time. That’s what I had to do with the city of Detroit. When they tore it down the first time I put it back up, and the second time was better than the first and it keeps getting better.”

Spotted at L+T