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Graffiti Graveyard: The decline of Bubble Gum Alley

Nicholas Williams/Daily
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By Alicia Adamczyk, Daily News Editor
Published September 12, 2013

Walking down East Liberty Street, it can be easy to forget that the University’s Central Campus and hub of student activity is hardly more than a stone’s throw away. Vacant storefronts seem to outnumber thriving businesses, panhandlers camp out on street corners, and in Liberty Park Plaza and the smell of urine emanates from alleyways.

But for many University students, Ann Arbor residents and artists around the country, East Liberty Street isn’t just another struggling city block; it’s home to one of the state’s most celebrated public art spaces.

Known as Poet’s Alley, Bubble Gum Alley or, most commonly, Graffiti Alley, the space, which runs from East Liberty to Washington Street, has provided street artists and high-school students alike with a blank canvas for artistic expression.

According to Ann Arbor’s Wikipedia page, graffiti first started appearing in the alley in the 1980s, and soon a number of graffiti artists were collaborating on murals and other projects.

A negative reputation

In 1999, the city of Ann Arbor commissioned artist Katherine Tombeau Cost to create a city-approved mural, a five-month project that she titled “Infinite Possibilities.” The mural was featured in countless newspapers and art blogs and became a symbol for Ann Arbor’s thriving public art scene.

Graffiti slowly made its way back to the walls, covering parts of the city-commissioned artwork. Then, in July 2008, the alley was white-washed of Tombeau Cost’s mural by vandals. Instead of the vibrantly-colored and illustrated bricks, there stood a simplistic drawing of a singular figure next to the word “lonely...”.

Soon, the graffiti artists and high-school students were back to adding art and expression to the blank walls, transforming it into the colorful, sometimes crude, public art display it is today. Stencils of President Barack Obama are placed next to the words “You Are A Terrorist.” A few feet away, a clumsily drawn heart encompasses the initials of two would-be lovers. The work of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg is painted onto the ceiling of the entryway.

“Who can live without hope?”

But the alley isn’t the same, even with graffiti gracing its walls once more, at least not lately. Brian Woolridge, an Ann Arbor resident who most students knew from his Michael Jackson-fueled dance sessions, is noticeably absent. Woolridge was a fixture at the East Liberty alley since 1995, years before the original mural was commissioned.

“It wasn’t really used for anything, and everything was plain and I just tried to see what would happen if I danced,” he told in 2011, “and I've been dancing ever since.”

But Ann Arbor’s King of Pop may have had his last dance. As one University student passed by the alley, he mentioned he hadn’t seen the performer in more than a year.

In fact, much of the Liberty Street and State Street areas are beginning to look less and less like home. Many of the independently-owned boutiques and shops have closed, one after the other, to make room for Walgreens and other national chains. As retail vacancies on East Liberty Street in particular continue to rise, residents and near by businesses have complained to Ann Arbor City Council about an increase in homeless people and loiterers around the alley, and the city itself has begun to crack down on graffiti. But whether or not the alley deserves its increasingly negative reputation is a different question.

A space for expression

During the day, the alley buzzes with activity. High-school students pose for senior photos, a couple from out of town gazes at the cartoon drawings of Homer Simpson and a few people pass through on their way from the parking garage on Washington.

Michael June, a junior at Ann Arbor’s Skyline High School, came to the alley to take pictures for his photography class.