Brian Melvin (a.k.a. Deco 23) is one of the few street artists you'll see working in daytime Detroit. After 20 years of clandestine expeditions into the shadowy world of the city's ruins at night, spray painting variations of box figures on rough surfaces, the Wyandotte artist has become one of Detroit's better known muralists.
Born in Detroit and raised mostly in Wyandotte, Melvin, has traded his nocturnal habits for a more domestic life as a single parent raising his son, Eric, and working as a carpenter. That forces him to use his time wisely. On Saturdays, while Eric is with his mother, Melvin searches for wall space in Detroit. He takes cans of Spanish craft paint and looks for inspiration.
Melvin has been painting since elementary school. He says he just wants to "make you laugh, make you smile," while spray painting a blue figure on the broken concrete wall of a railway overpass. Detroit's abandoned built environment is Melvin's canvas. While technically vandalism, the ubiquitous presence of graffiti and street art has come to define the Detroit aesthetic. Appropriate to the Motor City, drivers passing by walls of linked colorful murals are often given pause.
Melvin generally works alone, but also paints with a crew known as TST, which includes Malt, another well-known Detroit street muralist. "There's nobody I'm trying to impress except the guys that I paint with," Melvin says. "I don't care if the President came up. If Malt came up and told me he liked me stuff I'd be more excited, because he does exactly what I do."
While pursuing their own work, TST remains tight. They plan to regroup later this summer to paint a mural in River Rouge.
Street art is "addictive," Melvin says, in a cloud of blue spray. "I get off doing it, no doubt. I love the smell of the paint. I love working with spray paint, working outside. ... It's part of me."
He paints colorful box figures with expressive mouths -- "chompers," as he calls them. ("90 percent of them have their mouths wide open.") Melvin researches locations with high visibility. "You look at where a lot of people travel." Several of Melvin's chompers grace the walls of Recycle Here!
, a recycling center in Detroit. He points to a rooftop of the facility, directly opposite an Amtrak rail line. "They go slow right here. So your name is seen by someone on Amtrak. It's all about who sees you...My characters are up there."
Matthew Naimi, director of Operations at the recycling center, encourages street artists to create on the interior and exterior walls of the facility, and in an adjacent vacant lot known as the Lincoln Street Art Park. Melvin's chompers are found all around the facility. Naimi likes his pieces because they're "whimsical, funny... accepted by adults and kids. It is a great style for our project and contrasts well with the other styles on our building."
Melvin has received commissions for street murals, including having one painted in the Russell Industrial Center shown in a fleeting second on an episode of the television show Detroit 187
. His work is also shown regularly at the River's Edge gallery
Urban Detroit has become a destination for many artists, including international artists, says Jeremy E. Hanson, gallery director and curator at River's Edge. "A lot of graffiti artists are coming here (Detroit) because of the availability of buildings and collaborations with other artists on getting strongholds on venues that are safe for artists to come and practice and do their thing."
Naimi adds that Detroit is home to "some of the most amazing graffiti writers...in the world. ... Street art in Detroit has more of an impact on an area...it's a way to make destruction look delicious." Street art can be appreciated in a gallery setting, but often the street is the gallery itself, he says.
As a gallery curator, Hanson appreciates Melvin's work because "he is total art for art sake. He's all about the creative process. He's all about putting color into fun, playful monsters, especially in derelict areas where it's not such a happy playful setting. To have that juxtaposition of these funky, playful monsters with bright, wonderful colors is great."
Nearly 40, Melvin finds himself reflecting on his past and the street art scene he's been a part of, while moving away from the boxed chompers to more curved figures. Painting during daylight, he's careful to find street space that doesn't put him at risk of arrest for vandalism, not that it's that much of a risk in Detroit. But he is a parent, something that matters to him. Some of the thrill is gone, but the passion for finding his creative space in the urban ruins remains.
"I still see myself (painting) at 60; if I can do it, I'll still be doing it. I have to do it," he vows. What he won't be doing, however, is breaking the law. Those days are over. "If I go to jail, what happens to my kid? I know I can't get into trouble."
A new generation of artists has discovered the colorful jungle cultivated by Melvin's peers. "Graffiti's not what it used to be," Melvin says. "I look at kids just getting into it -- their mom bought them a bunch of paint."
When he started out a lot of guys stole paint and literally put their lives at risk. Just as he never paints a church or an occupied building, Melvin says he never stole paint. It's a code of honor that he and his crew stand by. "I go back to karma -- I don't want to get into trouble."
This work used to be done mainly at night. Now, it's completely different he says, "unless it's a really ballsy-ass spot... like how in the hell did he do that? Those are the nighttime spots. Back in the day if you did it in the nighttime you'd always go with somebody as a lookout, watching your back."
To a large extent, street art has gone mainstream and has lost its edge. "Graffiti is everywhere...It's so weaved into our lifestyle. It's acceptable, but there will still be some people who will go out and paint what they want... an expression of freedom."
Melvin feels his age and responsibility. "I won't go up on the freeway and start painting like I used to. I was always trying to do my letters back in the day, throwing a character in here and there. I got sick and tired of letters. ... Characters are my main things. It's what I love to do."
Some days he takes Eric with him while he paints.
What about his son becoming a street artist? "I won't allow it," he says. He knows too much from experience. "It's weird being careless when I was younger and now, as a parent, the kid jumps on the couch and I say, 'no, no.'"
Melvin is preparing new work for a show at River's Edge that Hanson predicts will be a deviation from his existing street art. At the same time, the artist is looking at the possibility of transforming his still characters into animation.
"That's what I really want to do," he says. "If I could quit everything I would do cartoons for a living. ...That's where I see my stuff going eventually. I would love to have a Sponge Bob cartoon... maybe not on TV but on computer."
Meanwhile, he hurries to finish his latest piece near Recycle Here! "I only have three hours left. That's why I do as minimal as possible and as clean as possible. I don’t like leaving something and coming back. I always like to come back to a fresh canvas."