What Mike Duggan's 2003 Anti-Graffiti Crusade Says About His Political Style

July 03, 2013, 12:09 AM

By Bill McGraw and Ben Schmitt

Mike Duggan cringed Tuesday when a campaign aide showed him a picture of a mayoral-campaign slogan painted on the wall of an East Side building.

“Write in Duggan for mayor,” it said, one of several pro-Duggan ads reportedly painted on buildings around the city.

“The last thing I need is people helping me out by doing graffiti,” Duggan said wryly.

Duggan detests graffiti, and he proved that in spectacular fashion 10 years ago.

While the memory of the episode has faded with time, during the summer of 2003, when he was serving as Wayne County prosecutor, Duggan waged a highly publicized and controversial anti-graffiti crusade that included jailing two out-of-town artists for 60 days and threatening to throw a notorious tagger known as Turtle – and what Duggan called his “organization” -- into Jackson Prison.

At the time, Duggan’s campaign against nonviolent artists armed with paint cans raised questions about law enforcement priorities as well as whether graffiti should be considered art or a crime. This summer, as Duggan embarks on a difficult write-in campaign for mayor, looking back on his battle against graffiti provides a glimpse into his style as a public official in a high-profile job.

In declaring war on graffiti, Duggan went where no other Detroit-based official had gone before. He was decisive, bold, flamboyant and tough, bordering on ruthless. He was also strategic: He used the example of the jailed artists as a teaching moment, telling the metro area that Detroit was fed up with quality-of-life issues such as graffiti, prostitution, drugs, illegal dumping and abandoned houses.

Quality-of-Life Issue

He proclaimed Detroit no longer would tolerate activity like graffiti that was not accepted in the suburbs.

“It’s not an act of art,” Duggan said at the time. “It’s the ultimate act of disrespect. It says that they don’t believe the citizens of Detroit deserve better.” 

The mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, expressed agreement with Duggan, but was much more conciliatory, saying  he hoped the city could work with the artists to do mutually acceptable work.

The two visiting taggers were caught by police at 4:20 a.m. June 11, 2003, on East Grand Boulevard near Russell. They had a bag containing 21 cans of paint and were spraying an empty building.

Duggan originally charged both men with a felony – conspiracy to commit malicious destruction of a building, punishable by five years in prison. No one could recall such a charge against graffiti artists.

Graffiti Convention

The pair, in their 20s, were Michael Welch of Wisconsin, in white T-shirt at left,  and Paul Alaga of California. Welch’s tag was “COUPE;” Alaga was known as “ARYS.” Both names appeared on many Detroit buildings in 2003. The two were in town for a graffiti convention.

Welch and Alaga eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge, but spent two months in the Wayne County jail, an experience that Welch later characterized as having taken “disgusting to a whole new level.”

Duggan also sought to have both men debriefed on what they knew about other Detroit street artists and testify against them, but their attorneys balked and those demands were dropped. But even after they got out of jail, the men had to clean their tags off of a dozen buildings.

Their attorneys, the men’s relatives, art critics, the ACLU and numerous other observers questioned Duggan’s tactics, with some accusing him of over-reacting, especially given Detroit’s problem with violent crime. Duggan’s anti-graffiti tactics, coming on top of his years as an operative for Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara, contributed to his reputation for political callousness.

Duggan refused to back down.

In fact, the day the men pleaded guilty, Duggan held a news conference, pictured above, next to an abandoned building sporting the COUPE tag at W. Forest and Rosa Parks. Flanked by Detroit police and Wayne County sheriff deputies, he denigrated graffiti artists.

Canine Comparison

“These guys go around, much like a dog marking his territory and urinating on fire hydrants,” he said.

He hammered home the point that he was using Welch and Alaga as poster boys for his quality-of-life campaign.

And Duggan zeroed in on another tagger who had created a sensation by painting green turtles on numerous Detroit surfaces.

“When we get the Turtle organization, we have spots for them in Jackson Prison, and that’s where I intend to send them,” Duggan said.

When Welch and Alaga were released in August, they expressed amazement their art had landed them in jail with men charged with murder and other violent crimes.

“Duggan was just a politician who’s trying to get elected mayor,” said Welch, though Duggan showed no interest in being mayor in that era.

“He’s white, right?” Welch asked an interviewer at the time, explaining he couldn’t see a white man becoming Detroit’s chief executive.

“There’s no fucking white prosecutor EVER going to get elected in Detroit,” Welch continued. “Give me a fucking break. A white prosecutor trying to get elected mayor in Detroit? Right! Why don’t you just go up there and say, ‘Hi, I’m Hitler’s brother?’”

After Duggan left the prosecutor’s office to become CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, his successor, Kym Worthy, relegated graffiti to where it had traditionally been – a very low priority. She said at the time law enforcement needed to concentrate on fighting serious crime.

One-Man 'Organization'

Duggan failed to get the so-called Turtle organization, which turned out to be one loner from Hamtramck who was never charged. Over the next decade, graffiti has flourished in Detroit. Someone lately even has been tagging the large green overhead signs on the expressways. 

Ten years later, Duggan is, indeed, trying to become Detroit’s first white mayor since 1973. While polls consistently show him as one of two front-runners, with Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, his campaign suffered a serious setback late last month when courts kicked him off the ballot because he failed to follow the Detroit City Charter in handing in his nominating petitions.

He announced a write-in campaign last week, which was endorsed Tuesday by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. 

In a phone conversation Tuesday, Duggan recalled the graffiti in 2003 “really pissed me off.”

He said Sue Mosey, the longtime leader of the effort to rejuvenate Midtown, told him about the negative effect and costs of  graffiti in that neighborhood.

Seeing what Mayor Rudy Giuliani was doing in prosecuting low-level crimes New York, Duggan said he tried to imitate that policy in Detroit.

“I consider these quality-of-life crimes serious issues,” Duggan said. “They will have a ripple effect on other crimes.”

Detroit in 2013, Duggan said, has a “culture of lawlessness” that needs to be addressed.

“The issue is leadership,” he said.

Photos of Duggan and the taggers are from a documentary titled "Paintcans and Politics," by Tony Smith. 

The "Write In Duggan for Mayor" graffiti in the photo is on the nine-story building at East Grand Boulevard and Beaubien that for several years has been the site of the multi-colored and multi-storied artwork, below.


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