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September 12, 2013 - Image 9

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 2013-09-12

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By Alicia Adamczyk, Daily Arts Writer

Walking down East Liberty
Street, it can be easy to forget
that the University's Central
Campus and hub of student
activity is hardly more than
a stone's throw away. Vacant
storefronts seem to outnum-
Sber thriving businesses, pan-
handlers camp out on street
corners and in Liberty Park
Plaza and the smell of urine
emanates from alleyways.
But for many University
students, Ann Arbor residents
and artists around the coun-
try, East Liberty Street isn't
just another struggling city
block; it's home to one of the
state's most celebrated public
art spaces.
Known as Poet's Alley,
Bubble Gum Alley or, most
commonly, Graffiti Alley, the
space, which runs from East
Liberty to Washington Street,
has provided street artists and
high-school students alike
with a blank canvas for artis-
tic expression.
According to Ann Arbor's
Wikipedia page, graffiti first
started appearing in the alley
in the 1980s, and soon a num-
ber of graffiti artists were
collaborating on murals and
other projects.
A negative reputation
In 1999, the city of Ann
Arbor commissioned artist
Katherine Tombeau Cost to
create a city-approved mural,
a five-month project that she
titled "Infinite Possibilities."
The mural was featured in
countless newspapers and art
blogs and became a symbol for
Ann Arbor's thriving public
art scene.
Graffiti slowly made its
way back to the walls, cover-
ing parts of the city-commis-
sioned artwork. Then, in July
2008, the alley was white-
washed of Tombeau Cost's
mural by vandals. Instead
of the vibrantly-colored and
illustrated bricks, there stood
a simplistic drawing of a sin-
gular figure next to the word

Soon, the graffiti artists
and high-school students
were back to adding art and
expression to the blank walls,
transforming it into the color-
ful, sometimes crude, public
art display it is today. Stencils
of President Barack Obama
are placed next to the words
"You Are A Terrorist." A few
feet away, a clumsily drawn
heart encompasses the ini-
tials of two would-be lovers.
The work of Pulitzer Prize-
winning poet Carl Sandburgis
painted onto the ceiling of the
"Who can live without
But the alley isn't the same,
even with graffiti gracing
its walls once more, at least
not lately. Brian Woolridge,
an Ann Arbor resident who
most students knew from his
Michael Jackson-fueled dance
sessions, is noticeably absent.
Woolridge was a fixture at
the East Liberty alley since
1995, years before the original
muralwas commissioned.
"It wasn't really used for
anything, and everything
was plain and I just tried to
see what would happen if I
danced," he told AnnArbor.
com in 2011, "and I've been
dancing ever since."
But Ann Arbor's King of
Pop may have had his last
dance. As one University stu-
dent passed by the alley, he
mentioned he hadn't seen the
performer in more than a year.
In fact, much of the Liberty
Street and State Street areas
are beginning to look less and
less like home. Many of the
independently owned bou-
tiques and shops have closed,
one after the other, to make
room for Walgreens and other
national chains. As retail
vacancies on East Liberty
Street in particular continue
to rise, residents and nearby
businesses have complained
to Ann Arbor City Council
about an increase in homeless
people and loiterers around

the alley, and the city itself has
begun to crack down on graf-
fiti. But whether or not the
alley deserves its increasingly
negative reputation is a differ-
ent question.
A space for expression
During the day, the alley
buzzes with activity. High-
schoolstudentspose for senior
photos, a couple from out of
town gazes at the cartoon
drawings of Homer Simpson
and a few people pass through
on their way from the parking
garage on Washington.
Michael June, a junior at
Ann Arbor's Skyline High
School, came to the alley to
take pictures for his photog-
raphy class. He said the space
is popular with his classmates
and was the first place he
thought of when he needed
to get some inspiration for his
"It's a (good) place for pho-
tography and expression,"
June said. "People can just
draw and spray-paint what-
ever they want ... expression is
a big thing here."
He said though he can
see how people looking in
from the street might get the
wrong impression, he's never
felt unsafe hanging out there,
especially given the relative
security of the city.
"It looks like it from the
outside," he said. "But you're
never going to get mugged in
Ann Arbor. It's a pretty nice
place here."
After June leaves, two dif-
ferent sets of photographers
walk through within the
span of 10 minutes, a testa-
ment to the alley's attrac-
tive qualities among artists.
One man carries equipment,
while another, Detroit pho-
tographer Mike Boening,
said he came to Ann Arbor to
scope out scenery for senior
photos and heard that the
alley would provide a great


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