'Turtle' Graffiti Resurfaces In Detroit A Decade After Artist Was Unmasked

The sign of the turtle is back.

Does it mean anything?

Perhaps not. It's only one.

But someone drew an outline of a turtle on a relatively new sign in Midtown, at the construction site of Wayne State University's biomedical research center on Woodward north of the Ford Freeway. And it is difficult to believe that is a coincidence.

A decade ago, left, turtle graffiti was everywhere in central Detroit: Turtles appeared on billboards, vacant buildings, occupied buildings, street lights, freeway bridges and mailboxes, among other places. Turtles were seen at street level and at fifth-floor levels. They made the news. 

It was never clear what turtles meant, and sometimes they were accompanied by the word "Turtl," "Trdl" or "Turdl." A Hazel Park man trademarked the image, which he sold on T-shirts and other memorabilia. 

The artist known as Turtle angered a lot of people.

An art gallery put a $1,000 bounty on his head. Former Wayne County Prosecutor Mike Duggan, today's mayoral candidate, promised to throw him in prison if he was ever caught. For more than a year, Turtle remained underground before law enforcement officials figured out his identity.

He was a 27-year-old man who grew up in Warren and lived in Hamtramck. One of his old driver's licenses contained a drawing of a turtle at the end of his signature.

"This just happened. There's no politics behind it," he told Free Press reporter Ben Schmitt, who also found him, in 2004. "I just kind of came up with it. The turtle is an icon. Icons can be powerful."

As prosecutor, Duggan went on an anti-graffiti crusade that wasn't shared by his successor, Kym Worthy, who decided that resources needed to be concentrated on more serious crime and refused to charge the Turtle artist.

The artist could not be reached Wednesday. Nine years ago he said he was no longer doing turtle graffiti, and, for the most part, turtles stopped appearing on walls, though some old ones remain. 

Until recently.

-- Bill McGraw









Email Signup
Send us your email address and we’ll send you the best of Detroit!