Rebecca Arends is a massage therapist, not an artist. But she painted murals at ten locations around town over the summer.
The most prominent is at Orchid Lane on Liberty. The store’s alley wall once was covered with graffiti. Now it is adorned with Arends’ stenciled trees, birds, and stars spread over a light gray background –with no graffiti anywhere.
Unauthorized painting is sometimes celebrated as “outsider art.” It’s tolerated just up the block, where “Graffiti Alley” is a swirl of multicolored tags and images. But as she sits at Tomukun Korean Barbeque across from her Orchid Lane mural, Arends’ brilliant eyes darken when asked what she thinks of graffiti.
“I don’t like the word,” she says firmly. “It should be vandalism.
“Graffiti has been romanticized,” she continues. “It paints a false mythology of a brooding young misunderstood artist who just wants to create beauty on unattractive buildings that no one cares about. That makes it easy for people to ignore the underlying issue: overwhelmed parenting. The profile of a tagger is [age] fifteen to twenty-three, white, male, middle-class to upper-class.”
Initially “ambivalent” about graffiti, Arends, forty-four, came to her strong views “through research and working with convicted taggers–and a personal experience that was so unbelievable that if it hadn’t happened to me I would doubt it.”
It began when she was painting a mural on the wall of Carter’s Auto Service on S. Ashley. “It was about eight o’clock at night, and four young men walked by. I said, ‘Hey, guys, you want to help?’ Two kept walking, and two stayed.
“One immediately started self-confessing: ‘I’ve tagged. It’s addictive.’ Meanwhile I’m showing him how to apply gold stars: ‘Go from the outside in. There you are! Gorgeous!’ Then, as he left, “this young man gave me a hug impulsively. It was a very powerful experience.”
Their next encounter ended not in a hug but an arrest.
Two weeks later, Arends stenciled a mural on the wall of Family Therapy Associates on W. Jefferson, around the corner from Carter’s. While she was there, her debit card disappeared. It might have fallen out of her purse, she says, or she might have left her car unlocked while she worked. However it happened, her bank soon called her to report that someone had used the card for purchases “up and down State St.: twelve locations within several hours!”
She went to the police station, where officer John Gilbee took her report. As she was leaving, she mentioned the young man who’d helped and hugged her at Carter’s.
She says Gilbee not only recognized his name–he knew that State St. was his favorite haunt. The officer went to look for him, she says, and found him at Walgreens. “He has my card on him, and he confesses!
“These guys aren’t innocent,” Arends concludes. Compulsive taggers, she says, “need to go up, up, up. Any self-confessing tagger says it’s better than sex, better than any drug. The high is unbelievable.”
Arends admits she’s felt that thrill herself when painting her stenciled murals: “It taps into a great need to be noticed, to feel important.”
Raised by a single mother in the conservative Word of God community, Arends and an older sister grew up “dirt broke” on Ann Arbor’s west side. When they went to Allmendinger Park to play, she says, her mother “would lean me over the side of those garbage cans to get the bottles to return. The State of Michigan and Washtenaw County supported us. Bookmobile and Head Start made a huge difference in my life.”
The Huron High grad rode her bike to her first job, at McDonald’s, then worked at Cafe Zola, Amer’s Deli, and the Real Seafood Co. “Working there [at Real Seafood] paid my way through massage school,” she says. She now has her own business, Excelsior Massage Therapy, and is working toward a bachelor’s at EMU.
She began thinking seriously about graffiti after she moved her business to a new office on Washtenaw a few years ago. At the new place, “there were tags all over the wall that had been covered up [with] lots of ugly mismatched colors.”
So over Memorial Day weekend last year, Arends painted the wall, then added a simple mural of stenciled stars. Previously, she says, it was being tagged, on average, every three months. In the next twenty-eight months, it was marred only once, a small tag that she quickly covered. When her landlord recently had the wall repaired and repainted, he asked her to recreate the mural as well–“he’s a believer in stars,” she says.
That success encouraged her to do more murals this summer. She found businesses to participate the old-fashioned way: “I cold-called everyone. I’d say, ‘I noticed you had graffiti. Would you consider a free mural?'” That approach led her to AAPD Sgt. Tom Hickey.
“She called me the end of April,” says the department’s lead community engagement officer. “This is my third summer of juvenile graffiti removal to clean up after tagging. She caught wind of that, and we discussed some of her ideas for cleaning the city up.”
“Sgt. Hickey is such a cheerleader,” Arends says “and having his name to throw around [really helps]. Everyone loves him.”
Arends found another important collaborator the new-fashioned way: “She contacted me through my website,” thegumgiant.com, says onetime city council candidate Jeff Hayner. “I do gum and graffiti removal.” After checking out Arends’ work, Hayner was so impressed “I prepped four walls for her for free. I try to do charity work, mostly for small business owners. Volunteerism is good for the spirit!”
“Jeff is very, very generous,” says Arends. “Without him I would have lost steam a long time ago. He put in over forty hours for free!”
Betsy Berriz, VP of owned residential real estate at McKinley Properties, says graffiti has a huge effect on the company’s tenants.
“For residents, it’s their home, so it has emotional impact even if it’s only on a Dumpster. For commercial tenants, it’s also emotional because it’s their business, and it becomes a magnet for all sorts of criminal activities.” She says the company spent $11,000 this year alone covering tags on the wall opposite Tomukun.
Berriz says Arends’ murals work: “We haven’t had any issues since she painted Tomukun.” Two small tags did appear at the end of August–but Hayner covered them within hours.
Downtown Development Authority executive director Susan Pollay also helped. Hayner told Arends that the DDA had grants available to remove graffiti–but at $25, they weren’t enough to buy even a gallon of paint. “I emailed [Pollay], and she said, ‘I love what you’re doing,'” Arends recalls. “And I said, ‘I need you to raise the grant to $100.’ She went with it, which is a huge reason why I was able to continue with additional locations.”
“She came on like a force of nature,” says Pollay. “She’s a true believer, and she’s doing it. She cares deeply about her community, and she’s making the time and doing something.”
“People view me as being a white, conservative older [person] who just wants to sterilize everything,” Arends acknowledges. “But really, this type of graffiti is self-aggrandizing, self-promoting. We can’t be bombarded with one individual’s agenda!”
But those individuals keep trying. Though they’ve left her murals largely unmolested, she emailed in mid-September, “we just got tagged this weekend–all our Dumpsters.”