GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - A graffiti artist decided to memorialize Gerald Ford, the 38th commander in chief, on the freeway that bears his name. The stenciled "pop up portraits" have led many to debate if it's graffiti or if it's art.
Some of the images can be seen while driving east on I-196 near northbound US-131. Two portraits of the Grand Rapids native show the president accompanied by the phrase, "I am indebted to no man" -- words spoken by Ford in 1974 after he took the oath of office.
Another is located across from the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building and shows Ford running.
"I like that it's not just a tagger for his or her own means. There's content and that's the big difference," said Kendall assistant professor of illustration David Gianfredi. He told 24 Hour News 8 it's not where the art is or who it's by -- but what is behind it.
"There's content there. This person's making a commentary on a great person who came from Grand Rapids, and they're celebrating that in their own way. It's not somebody doing a gang sign or something like that. It's somebody making a commentary on Gerald R. Ford."
Gianfredi said the "urban art" trend is growing everywhere. He also pointed out that art should be celebrated in a city like Grand Rapids -- one that's known for its art.
"I don't see anything wrong with it, I think it should stay," said Gianfredi. "I think they should leave it be. If it were ArtPrize or something, they'd let that stand, you know? But maybe there's not hundreds of thousands of dollars involved, all of a sudden it's distasteful? No, I don't buy it at all."
"Even though it's a nice depiction of President Ford, it has to come down," said MDOT communications representative John Richard. "It's in a right-of-way, and there's enough things for people to look at when they're going 65 miles an hour down an interstate."
Richard said MDOT policy is to remove graffiti whenever they find it.
He said the Ford picture is likely to disappear within the next few weeks -- but that timeline would be a lot shorter if the graffiti was offensive or negative.
Richard acknowledged that the portrait is interesting and a "great choice" by the artist, but said the department cannot make an exception.
"We really can't make exceptions just because then it will kind of open the flood gates for more graffiti to go up," said Richard.
As far as the distraction, Gianfredi said he believes billboards are far more distracting, especially electronic ones.
"They're almost like movie screens on the side of the highway," said Gianfredi. "That will get you in a wreck far more than a black stencil on the bottom of an abutment in a highway. So I don't see the argument there."
He doubts if these pictures were left up there would be a spike in the number of artistic depictions, and he said he disagrees with the "floodgates" argument.
"It's not a 'one size fits all,' so it seems like it's a kind of cheesy way to get out of it," said Gianfredi. He said he hopes that officials would look at each picture on a case-by-case basis.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so you know, it's art to some people, and graffiti to some others," said Richard. "So from our perspective, it's a distraction."
The Gerald R. Ford Public Museum has no official position on the graffiti, though one official said it's difficult to condone something that's not approved by the city.
The portraits were painted by an anonymous artist.
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