It was an exciting opportunity for Detroit’s burgeoning art community.
Baltimore street artist Gaia, who is internationally renowned for his work promoting diversity, came to Detroit in June to paint a mural for no compensation to honor Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American beat to death by two white men in Highland Park in 1982. The black-and-white mural depicted a beaming Chin on a building along the Grand River Creative Corridor, a community project that has transformed drab buildings into alluring works of legal art.
But for the first time since the project launched three years ago, several murals, including the one of Vincent Chin, have been vandalized in the past week.
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The man who defaced the Chin mural is Sintex, a popular, confrontational Detroit artist who buffed the wall Thursday and began painting his own mural at the bewilderment of local artists, Asian Americans and others who had admired the memorial.
On Facebook, Sintex told Gaia, “The people in the community hated your piece bro.”
Also vandalized last week were smaller paintings, a sign for an affiliated art gallery and a large new mural by another Baltimore artist with the message: “FROM ASHES WE RISE.”
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“We’ve never had anything like this happen since the project started,” said Derek Weaver, who founded the Grand River Creative Corridor and provided living and work space for Sintex for the past two years.
Sintex, who was arrested last year for pulling a gun on an artist and was accused of doing the same thing this year near the Eastern Market, expressed no sympathy.
“The culture vultures should stop killing local graffiti,” he told me Sunday as he worked on a new mural about unity, expressing frustration that out-of-town artists were threatening to ruin the local graffiti scene with “cookie-cutter pieces.”
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For three years, the wall on which the Chin mural was painted featured a mural by Sintex, whose work is prominently displayed throughout the GRCC. Like other walls, it was planned for a new mural on the 4000 block of Grand River just south of W. Warren.
“Sintex has known that our plan was to rotate murals every few years,” Weaver told me. “He gave us his blessing and met Gaia. We talked to the owner, Red, and told him the story of Vincent Chin. He was moved by the story and agreed to the memorial.”
But Sintex later insisted that the section of the mural that depicted two Native Americans was off limits and that they were “sentimental” to the owner. Sintex said he received permission from the owner to repaint the Native Americans. Beginning Thursday, he began buffing the entire wall and announced on Facebook that he would not be pushed aside.
“The beauty i provide to the real people of Detroit is my voice…my divine ambition is to revive the minds of the lost n dead in my community,” Sintex wrote. “this just is not just painting some bullshit ass mural about what you think my city is.”
In another Facebook post, Sintex declared, “ITS TIME WE FIGHT BACK!…WAKE UP!”
Gaia, whose real name is Andrew Pisacane, said he can understand the opposition to outsiders but not the destruction of a mural meant to memorize a civil rights icon.
“Buffing the memory of Vincent Chin is a misplaced critique on the murals that are clashing with graffiti,” Gaia said. “Instead it comes off as a gesture against the Asian community of Michigan.”
Gaia explained why he chose to do a mural of Chin.
“My only intention for the mural was to create a memorial to a man whose death was a watershed moment in pan Asian American politics,” Gaia said. “I wanted to extend the piece beyond remembrance and pair the mural with the a couple instances of global miracles that would eventually constitute global competition to the automative base of Detroit and the United States. In memorializing Vincent Chin’s murder, I did not want to shy away from the macroeconomic forces that engendered such racism.’
Weaver said he is considering equipping the GRCC with surveillance cameras.
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.