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The Wyland Mural Covered by Greed

Every week I travel to downtown Detroit several times. Most days we are dropping off our children to practice with the Michigan Opera Theatre Children’s Chorus at the Detroit Opera. The drive leads us right past the Broderick Tower and a mural that holds a special place in my heart. Wyland is a fellow alumni of Lamphere High School in Madison Heights, and during my experience he, with the help of many students, created an amazing whale mural in the pool area. We sat on the bleachers and watched his progress and celebrated the completion.

Since then he has completed 100 whale murals all over the world to encourage people to reflect on the ways we interact with the water around us and how we can protect this life-sustaining resource.

“The Whale tower” which is located on just one face of the David Broderick Tower in Detroit has served as a warm reminder of my connection to this amazing person, his art, and his cause. Today, the mural is covered by yet another ad. It’s simply sad!!!

Detroit Needs More Public Art, Not Less

Years ago, U.S. Outdoor Advertising, a large billboard company, approached General Motors about placing a billboard over the ocean mural that marine life artist Wyland had created for the city of Detroit, across from Comerica Park. Not only was the artist surprised by the decision, the move seemed to be a shameless ploy to circumvent the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) of 1990. The federal statute was established to protect public murals of significant stature from big companies with big bucks making decisions for the public about what they felt people should or shouldn’t see.

Of course, when large corporations decide that they want a space for advertising, they almost always get what they want. In the case of U.S. Outdoor and their client, General Motors, lawyers representing the companies decided to apply a loophole in VARA in which they agreed not to paint over the mural, but simply place a billboard over it. How long would the billboard last? Who knew? And what would prevent another company from placing their billboard over the mural after General Motors? The answer was evident recently when real estate goliath Rocket Mortgage followed the succession of companies covering long established works of public art in the city to serve their advertising needs. The victim, once again, was the iconic marine life mural by Wyland on Detroit’s Broderick Tower.

Back in 2006, the public outcry to protect the Wyland whale mural was proactive and effective. In a case of David versus Goliath, a small, dedicated group of people voicing their opinions about the mural overcame huge odds, and in a few weeks, General Motors pulled the plug. It was one small step for Detroit’s whaling wall mural, and one giant step for public art across America. But it was a small victory, as more advertisers rolled in, from Jeep to Verizon to Blackberry, all covering the mural, year after year. Despite the vocal outcry, Pandora’s Box was opened. The latest vinyl advertising banner from Rocket Mortgage, while somewhat different, still continues the trend of advertisers finding ways around a long-standing effort by people to protect existing public artworks, essentially destroying the main purpose of any art, which is to be seen.

Wyland painted the image of what was to become known as, “Whale Tower,” on the Broderick Building in the city’s Historic District in 1997, at a time when the building was considered a tower of decay. Wyland, a native of Detroit, saw a brighter future beyond what Dan Austin of referred to as the “senseless graffiti dotting the marble along the corridors and plaster walls”that had existed for years. A fierce advocate of protecting the health of our ocean, lakes, rivers, and streams, Wyland painted his whales as part of a Mid-West tour of ocean murals to raise public awareness about the Great Lakes, clean water, and the connection of all water habitats to the sea. The mural was embraced with much fanfare, with thousands of school kids from around the Detroit area coming by to watch the mural progress, and to lend their support. It quickly became one of the bright spots of the Motor City and a favorite art landmark.

The bottom line is that there are dozens if not hundreds of buildings in Detroit crying out for public art. The Whale Tower by Wyland is a shining example of a public artwork that was created when and where the community needed it most and that is one of the reasons why the mural has achieved a stature of significance. Yet, once again, this stunning artistic reminder that we are all connected to our marine ecosystems no matter where we live is left to languish beneath an opaque sheath of corporate branded vinyl. All we can do is hope that companies like Rocket Mortgage, Verizon, and whoever is next in line support public art by creating more art where it’s needed, rather than simply covering a landmark mural because it’s convenient.

About the Wyland Foundation

Founded in 1993 by environmental artist Wyland, the Wyland Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit organization is dedicated to promoting, protecting, and preserving the world’s oceans, waterways, and marine life. The foundation encourages environmental awareness through community events, educational programs, and public art projects. For years, has rallied the support of mayors and cities nationwide to urge constituents to consider their environmental impact through its National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation. The group works on educating constituents about CO2 emitted from our homes and everyday habits. Thousands participate nationwide annually pledging to save billions of gallons of water. 

Amber Louchart
Author: Amber Louchart

Amber is the proud mother to four beautiful children, Damian (27), Rosaleigh (14), Carlyn (11), and Naomi (8). Her family also includes four cats. She loves being a stay-at-home mom and feels blessed to be able to care for her children full-time and provide them with so many opportunities through Metro Detroit Mommy. In addition to Metro Detroit Mommy, Amber has a passion for hosting karaoke with Malibu Entertainment.  She enjoys the metro Detroit nightlife especially, singing, dancing and meeting new people.