Decoding the Deluxe Inn: Part 1

Culminating with its demolition this week, the delightful denouement of Lansing’s notorious Deluxe Inn—transformed from dangerous eyesore to briefly beautiful art project—began, perhaps not surprisingly, with an illegal act.

The perpetrator: Sam deBourbon, 24. Raised on Lansing’s Southside, he attended Everett High for three years before transferring to Okemos for his senior year. His crime: a wall of unsanctioned art applied to local railway underpass—a.k.a graffiti, urban painting, or in this case, destruction of property.

After pursuing diversion to avoid a permanent blot on his record, he was sentenced to community service.

And that’s where the story gets really interesting, and uniquely Lansing.

You Don’t Know Sam

In addition to his local Lansing creds, deBourbon (moniker SRSLY, among others) has a degree from the Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, where he studied interactive and graphic design.

Before discovering art, his passions were meteorology, mathematics and music (he played the double bass in the Okemos High orchestra), all of which he studied at Western Connecticut State University before transferring to Kendall.

“I dropped my music major [in Connecticut] because they were against me taking more math classes,” says deBourbon. “I still stayed with the music—the orchestra, some plays and operas—but I was also starting to draw more.

"In my physics classes, I was paying attention and I was getting the concepts, but I was drawing steadily.”

“Drawing” in this case, is shorthand for graffiti style, which he first discovered while “sitting on a bus somewhere in the middle of Germany” in 2003, on tour with the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp.

“It was everywhere—the highways were just covered,’” he says. “I’ve always been a font nerd—always liked typefaces. And the lettering with the graffiti—it’s so clean. I wondered, ‘How on earth do they do that?’”

His interest deepened at Western Connecticut—an area that incidentally turned out to be “kind of the birthplace of most East Coast graffiti.” Fairfield County, he explains, with its Metro North rail lines, “is the main county for graffiti for the whole New York/Connecticut area.”

deBourbon is back in Lansing now, looking for work—preferably with a design firm or tattoo shop—and bringing in money with small graphic design projects and murals, including the Lansing Gold & Diamond Exchange, a screen printing shop in Berkeley, Mich., and a West Bloomfield, Mich., children’s boutique.

In addition to the paying (i.e., legal) gigs, he’s also made his mark on walls, freight train cars, and buildings. But it wasn’t until that railway underpass in Meridian Township—now demolished—that the law caught up with his hobby..

Triad of Talent

deBourbon wanted to do a public mural to satisfy his community service requirement. But he needed a legally sanctioned wall to do it on. He called on an old acquaintance, Joe Manzella, who he thought might be able to help.

The two had first met back in 2003, on that same Blue Lakes bus ride through Germany. They connected online but hadn’t really talked much in the intervening years.

“I found him on Facebook and saw he was doing stuff around here. I thought, ‘He must really like Lansing,” says deBourbon. “I called him up and said, ‘Does anybody need a free mural?’”

Originally from the Detroit area, Manzella, 24, came to MSU to study urban and regional planning. After graduating and working a stint at CATA, he’s now living in a loft in REO Town and working as manager of regional programs for the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP).

He is also the vice president of Accelerate Lansing, a local volunteer group working on urban revitalization, cultural development and talent attraction.

Manzella thought he might be able to find a building to stage a small urban art event, with five or ten graffiti artists.

He brought the idea to the Accelerate group, and mentioned it to Eric Schertzing, Ingham County Treasurer and director of the Ingham County Land Bank

They soon landed on the Deluxe Inn as a likely prospect.

“Everything we'd suggest, [Schertzing] took it up a notch—bigger and bigger and bigger. He completely embraced it from the start."says Manzella. "He said, ‘It's a big building, Joe, you're going to need more than five or ten people,’ and he asked me "Why just do the backside, when this other side is so visible?'”

Attracting the Art

In terms of the land bank's investment, Schertzing says it wasn't much. Building residents had been relocated earlier and the structure—along with its seedy reputation and sketchy history—was slated for demolition. The land bank put plywood over the windows to give the artists something to paint on, and provided some security and minor repairs.

The actual paint was provided by the artists themselves, along with some donations from local individuals and groups.

“This just took on a life and energy of its own,” says Schertzing. “Truly, the community created this event. We just provided the pallet.”

By recruiting among his network and online, deBourbon reached out to approximately 25 painters, and successfully pulled in “five or six people from Detroit, lots of people from Lansing, a couple of cats from Grand Rapids,” as well as two painters named Oyster and Jial from Chicago.

Among the underground network of well-known urban painters, the list of notables involved in the Deluxe Inn project is impressive.

Two established writers from Wisconsin and Minnesota, Buick and Tuna, were actually already in town, attending law school in the Lansing area.

“They just showed up, and I’m like, ‘I see your stuff on the internet all the time,’” says deBourbon.

Tallying the Impact

Final demolition of the Deluxe Inn is underway this week, after local police and fire crews used the building for rescue practice.

Many of the colorful plywood panels have been salvaged, and Schertzing is considering ways to use them as part of future fundraisers to support local art.

All totaled, Schertzing estimates the event attracted 1,500 people during the initial weekend of painting, and another estimated 1,500 in the weeks that followed.

“I thought it could be big, but I didn’t think it was really going to be that big—to the point that everyone and their family was toting around spray cans and trying to paint something. That was completely unreal to me.” says deBourbon.

And that's the kind of impact that is harder to measure.

“We were bringing grandmothers and families out to a building where drug dealers, prostitutes and murderers hung out,” says Manzella. “Even if it’s temporary, we're encouraging interaction. That's the point of a city, of public spaces—to foster good interactions.”

Which is where we’ll pick up this story again next week, digging deeper into the urban painting network that made the Deluxe Inn project happen, and explore how we might tap into that movement to reshape Lansing’s future look and feel.

Note: to continue reading Part 2 of this story, click

Brad Garmon lives in Lansing and is the Editor-In-Chief of Capital Gains. If you'd like some homework for Part 2 of this story, he’d recommend the film NEXT: A Primer on Urban Painting.

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Deluxe Inn graffiti

Sam deBourbon

The finished project

Oyster from Chicago

King Beach with his work

Karl Gude's work

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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