Writing on the Wall

Hand-painted signs and murals in Detroit.

For two decades David Clements has roamed the neighborhoods of Detroit, looking at the city from multiple perspectives: as advertising agent, film location scout and photographer. He has discovered a style of folk art signage unique to Motown, that city obsessed with automobiles and music. The story of Detroit is well known — a top-tier industrial capital, now depressed and underpopulated — and it has given rise to an entire genre of urban landscape photography typified by books like The Ruins of Detroit. What’s missing from all the photographs of abandoned train stations and decaying ballrooms is some acknowledgment that there are people still living in the city center — 900,000 of them — and they have something to say.

Social and economic forces over the last 30 years have produced an urban core that is mostly black, Latino, Arab and Asian-American, surrounded by a sea of mostly white suburbs. The Detroit metro area’s 3.5 million suburbanites drive to the city regularly but spend little time on the streets. Clements’s photography captures messages sent by city center residents to those who pass by in automobiles. In this slideshow, he focuses on signs and murals that employ religious-infused script to proselytize, or hyperbole and humor to advertise. The folk artists who create these murals, signs and graffiti are often anonymous, but they are sometimes recognizable by their style or signature.

Storefront churches advertise themselves as “An Oasis of Comfort in a Desert of Calamity,” guaranteed by specific pastors and offering incentives such as van pick-up for services. One personal testimonial declares, “I Gather Brotherhood to Wait out the Cold,” over which a revisionist has written “Sisterhood.” But not all the messages are about impending Biblical doom. The writing on the wall includes the Tasmanian Devil and his 100% Whoop Ass Ball Cleaner, as well as the shoemaker’s elves from a previous era who bear witness to the city’s German and Irish heritage.

Most telling is a solitary placard nailed to a utility pole in an empty urban field. The pole casts a shadow like a finger pointing to the remains of an abandoned industrial building topped by a dysfunctional water tower. It has only one word of advice: “Evolve.”

Editors' Note

David Clements’s photographs were also featured in Borderland/Borderama/Detroit, a three-part essay by Jerry Herron, published on Places in July 2010.

David Clements and Douglas Haller, “Writing on the Wall,” Places Journal, February 2011. Accessed 09 Oct 2015. <>

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Past Discussions View
  • Sandy Olson

    02.23.2011 at 14:58

    Sorry to be so mundane but how do you get paid to do this. I love it. I do it but then I have to go to work.

  • Richard R.

    02.25.2011 at 14:34

    What's more to the point is, who's work is this? It is definitely not yours. You took the photos, but so do I (or we all). The act of archiving these signs does not add or subtract from them. They are what they are and they should be presented as such.

  • Erin B.

    03.14.2011 at 22:27

    "discovered a style" for whom? In the same way that Columbus "discovered the Americas"? I appreciate this kind of culture but not the bend that is often put on it when trying to get it publicity.

  • Dan

    03.15.2011 at 10:06

    I think that all of the complaints are very clearly addressed in the short article; taking these pictures is not David Clements's day job, and the people making the signs "are often anonymous." Would you rather not have someone post fascinating collections of images for free?

  • 01.17.2012 at 14:15

    That beauty of this type of art (street art, pop art, graffiti, folk art...whatever you want to call it) is that it is often anonymous, yet very poignant and personal--it's not just another mega-corporation--it's something that we can, at some level, relate to or understand. The photographs, although of another artist's work, still require an eye for composition and content. Well done!