Wave of new murals position Flint as one of world's top destinations for street art

FLINT, Michigan—It started as an initiative and has grown into a movement. Local and international muralists have descended on Flint, breaking down the walls of access to art and positioning Flint as a destination for fine art as well as neighborliness and culture. 
In less than three months, more than 40 murals have been completed in Flint bringing color and beauty to neighborhoods, telling stories of the people and places that make up Flint, and positioning the Flint Public Art Project to exceed its goal of completing 50 murals by September. 

“It’s all about perspective — and if we can change the way our city is perceived then we have done our job,” said Sandra Branch, vice president of the Flint Public Art Project. 

You can see them on water trailers on Flint’s northside or on downtown businesses. You can see them celebrating Flint’s Lantino community and inspiring the next generation of artists in Flint schools.

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And, this is just the beginning. Another 15 murals will be completed along South Saginaw Street during the Free City Mural Festival Oct. 7-12 as part of the Flint Public Art Project. 

The whole idea was six years in the making, with the project debuting in May of this year. Joe Schipani, executive director of Flint Public Art Project, drew in many international muralists through his partnership with CoLabs, an organization that amasses artistic talent from all over the globe for community engaged projects. 

Among the artists are  muralists Ellena Lourens, 21, and Keya Tama, 21, of South Africa. As they worked in the early morning light with a boom lift on hand, they brought their own creative twist to the bricked surface on the side of Cork on Saginaw. 

“I would want people to feel a sense of satisfaction when they look at (the mural) or some kind of catharsis,” said Tama. 

In just a couple days, the duo dressed the barren scape in pops of  blush pink, yellows, and shades of blue resulting in blocked illustration of two figures. One is reaching to give and the other—hand outstretched—is waiting to receive. The mural can be seen from any stroll down Saginaw Street. 

Just from posting pictures of the murals online, Schipani gets four to five requests a week asking for an updated list for people to follow. 

"I'm a little overwhelmed by the generosity of a lot of community members," said Schipani. "They've consistently brought home cooked meals to these artists for lunch water, tents so they can get out of the sun for a little bit—”

"Taking pictures with them, telling them about their families and their experiences of Flint,” Branch added.

Schipani provides the artists with food, housing, transport, and an immersive Flint experience. They volunteer their time and often, after their stint in the city, want to come back, said Schipani. 

“Nomad Clan, which is one of the  world’s top muralists, they love this place,” said Schipani. “They’ve been here twice already and are coming back in October.” 

Nomad Clan is a UK-based street art duo comprised of artist Cbloxx and AYLO (aka Joy Gilleard and Hayley Garner). They plan to continue their collaboration with Flint  Southwestern Academy, where they’ve inspired students to start a muralist club. 

The murals create an open museum to those who may not have the means to see world-class art — and the neighborhood jewelry creates a domino effect, inspiring residents to mobilize, Branch said.

Art is the gateway to activism, she said. Just by being exposed to the murals, people want to get involved and see themselves reflected. 

There are several murals at the Latinx Tech Center, but one specifically drew special attention from the community, said Director Asa Zuccaro.  

"One of our children in the community, we had noticed that it looks like her," said Zuccaro. “It’s art that represents people that we serve and the community that is here. … At the end of the road, you see that mural which makes me happy because (before) it was a blank square.”

The murals also help feed the local economy, Schipani said. They provide an open invitation for people to walk through the door of local businesses such as Hoffman’s Deli and Totem Books. 

The murals project has garnered massive attention nationwide, said Schipani, who answers at least 10 emails a day from local, national, and international artists interested in contributing to this unique project — designed to beautify Flint and show the world there is more to Flint than crime and crisis. 

The Free City Mural Festival is in part a response to the enthusiastic response to the 50 mural project, Schipani said. The 15 new murals will be painted in the same locale over the span of five days — and provide an opportunity for the overflow of artists who want to have a hand in creating an art mecca in Flint.
For more information, check out the Flint Public Art Project Facebook page.