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detroit grasshoppers

September 9th, 2009

Happy 9.9.09.

About a year ago, I was exploring the stunning abandoned Lafayette Building when I came across a surprising sight. Now there is a lot of window art in the Lafayette Building. They seemed to be similar to the well-known “Mayan” window art that appeared in the United Artists Building before the art was removed for the Superbowl. A lot of it was pretty interesting, a design and sometimes a figure or a face. It looks like Pop Art but instead of being screen-printed on canvas it is spray-painted on windows. They all appear to be by the same artist or group of artists. But when I saw this giant grasshopper, drawn across three office windows with almost perfect attention to anatomical detail & scale, with the light pouring through and bathing the room in a sickly yellow-orange, I was stunned.


the grasshopper

The Lafayette Building is currently being demolished by the city. This is another long story, but it means that we’ll lose yet another historic downtown skyscraper. This one, designed by C. Howard Crane in 1913, was unique for its V-shaped site plan and beautiful cornice which was somehow spared during the infamous cornice removals of the 1950s and 1960s.

It also meant no more sneaking into the Lafayette Building to marvel at the window art, particularly my favorite grasshopper.

Well I was pleased to see that around town, in other spots, the grasshoppers have started to reappear. They all share the same features: spray-painted onto the windows of vacant buildings, in highly visible locations, the grasshoppers are a kind of beacon. They are hardly considered ‘graffiti’ or ‘vandalism’ in my book. Rather, the grasshoppers are part of a brilliant installation art project that covers the whole city. The grasshoppers are part of a series of murals that liven up even the most depressing abandoned buildings around town. And the anonymous artist behind them has found a perfect gallery for his particular brand of art. The empty windows of Detroit’s thousands of empty buildings are appropriate canvases for this type of colorful pop art.


grasshopper - hotel ansonia

And while meant to be viewed from the outside, the works are truly most stunning viewed from inside, where the light is filtered by the greens, blues, and purples of the spray paint. Each room has a unique color or hue that is dictated by the colors of the grasshopper.


grasshopper ii

chasing grasshoppers

There are a lot of familiar graffiti artists around town. Everyone knows “Vomit”, and the ever-present “WARD”. Or “SID” — who writes “SID LIVES” everywhere he goes (the only time I’ve seen him write something different is when he wrote “I like the grasshoppers – Sid” on a chair under the Lafayette grasshopper). But those tags, nothing but giant stylized nicknames of the tagger, seem so immature and inappropriate compared with the giant anonymous grasshoppers.

The artist is also an expert at scale & alignment. Since the grasshoppers are created across several windows, the images on each ‘pane’ must match the one adjacent to it. This is illustrated most clearly in the latest grasshopper find…

When I saw a grasshopper on four upper-floor windows of the Hotel Ansonia in Detroit’s Lower Cass Corridor, I knew I had to photograph it from the inside. I made my way into the building, which was littered with the debris of Detroit’s homeless. Piles of excrement festered in the corners, and the hotel’s rooms were occupied by a cohort of Detroit’s most dazed and confused. Trust me when I say this is somewhere you most definitely do NOT want to go. Between the overwhelming stench of human feces, the collapsing stairwell, and the building’s homeless population, this place is really and truly one of those ‘death traps’ that your mother warns you about when you tell her you’re going urban exploring.

So considering all that, I went in anyway. I made my way up to the top floor and pushed open the door that I thought would lead to the ‘grasshopper room’. I was astonished to see that the grasshopper was actually in two separate rooms, each room with one half of the grasshopper on two windows. Wow. I was in the room with the “head” and upper torso of the grasshopper. So I went to the next room over. The door was closed. I pushed it open and–CLUNK. The door was chain locked from the inside. I looked down on the floor, which was covered with a mess of blankets, clothes, and plastic bags. Then I saw him. Sprawled naked amidst the piles, a sleeping homeless man. He didn’t wake up, despite my noise. I left quickly. Looks like I wouldn’t get my shot….

….In the mean time I found another grasshopper on the wall of an abandoned high school on the West Side. Now this one was unusual. There are no windows in this high school — not a single one — because they have all been removed by scrappers. However, the artist has placed this grasshopper in an equally visible spot. He put it high on the wall in the second floor, so when you’re driving by you’ll catch sight of it through the holes in the school’s walls.

grasshopper iv

A week later, I returned to the Hotel Ansonia, determined to get my shots. Up the same stairwell and to the same rooms. This time, I came when the man was out. I made my shots — one in each room — and quickly left. On the way down I walked by a homeless man doing his thing in the hallway. “Get the fuck out!” Don’t worry buddy, I’m outta here…

grasshopperansonia-diptychsm

Please let me know if you have seen other grasshoppers around town, or if you know anything about the artist. In the mean time I’ll write an update if I find any others!

facebook comments:

to “detroit grasshoppers”

  1. Marilyn

    I agree that the grasshoppers make for some very interesting, and intriguing photographs. However, what you have to go through to get them makes me what to scold you, and causes me to turn completely grey!

  2. Spencer

    Damn, Geoff, I thought scrambling up to Angel’s Landing to get shots was sketchy, but it pales in comparison, haha.

  3. Tara

    Wait–I always talk about how smart you are but…now I am not so sure. haha! Still, very rad.

  4. jdg

    are you sure it’s spraypaint? I remember reading something written by the artist claiming he doesn’t use spraypaint on windows. camilo vergara is writing about the grasshopper artist too—he was very intrigued by them the last time he was in town.

  5. gsg

    Hey jdg, glad to see you found your way here! I am not certain if it’s spraypaint, just looked like it to me. Vergara is pretty much my hero. I heard you two got to hang out like you were old friends — you lucky bastard! Does he have another book coming???

  6. b.plus

    Have you seen the two grasshoppers on the 2nd floor of the foreign language school near the Russell Industrial Complex?

  7. Elliott Bettman MD

    I’m from the Detroit burbs. They should save this Hotel..turn it into condos

  8. jmmb

    “camilo vergara is writing about the grasshopper artist too—he was very intrigued by them the last time he was in town.”

    does anyone know where to find said writings?

  9. stevie g

    Did you ever find out who the artist is?

  10. Christina Lossia

    Very interesting! Ahh grasshopper

  11. gsgblog » Blog Archive » a big update

    […] with some of my favorite Detroit-area artists. First up will be Kevin Joy, the elusive artist of grasshopper fame (yes, we found him), followed by my good-good friend Adam Ziskie, children’s book artist […]

  12. bealebo

    grasshoppers @ lee plaza
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bealebo/3883053433/in/set-72157621117526382/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bealebo/3883053933/in/set-72157621117526382/

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