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“Wastedland 2” Turns Detroit Factory into Graffiti Wonderland

Photos: Phill Connors

A neon sign of a tentacled alien. A souped-up shopping cart, part metal wire sculpture and part painting, topped by a parade of dangling wolf breasts. A hobo livingroom made out of plywood, plastic tarps and an old television. A cranky cat surrounded by bulging hoses, a fire extinguisher and empty spray cans. A robot on a typewriter.

These were just some of the installations, apparitions and characters you could find inside the former Lincoln Motor Car plant at Recycle Here in Detroit if you were lucky to catch the premiere of Wastedland 2, the new film by writer and director Andrew H. Shirley. Mass Appeal talked to the filmmaker and got a look behind the scenes.

The event took place in mid-September (the show will travel to other cities across the US this fall) and was a homecoming of sorts for its creator. Shirley, a Detroit native, told Mass Appeal that “the aesthetics of the film have their origins in the impressions that Detroit gave me as a youth”—urban decay, trespassing on abandoned properties and sifting through the detritus of America’s industrial past.

Shirley no longer calls Detroit home, but it was important for him to premiere Wastedland 2 here. He persuaded countless other artists, including many local graffiti writers and members of the notorious 907 crew, to help him turn the venue, much like the film, into a post-apocalyptic graffiti wonderland.

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For a few years Detroit was one of the most popular destinations for traveling writers, a free-for-all with unlimited possibilities, due to its abundance of unguarded wall space and abandoned properties. The city’s bankruptcy in 2013 freed up resources for graffiti clean-up and prosecution. Buff walls and carefully curated murals have since largely replaced illegal tags, throw-ups and pieces.

“Detroit has a really interesting history with graffiti and it tends to get overlooked. There has been a huge amount of skill, talent, and bravado in the streets here long before the muralists landed,” Shirley says. “ARMY, PERU, BRZM, SECT, ELMER, YOGURT, TURDL, DONT and others put in a lot of work over the years.” The Wastedland event was in part intended as “a public platform to showcase their work.”

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Matthew Naimi, the owner of Recycle Here, a sprawling arts compound surrounding an actual recycling center, provided the venue. “Matt Naimi gave me the space after knowing me for about five minutes,” Shirley recalls. “The show was executed as an example of what once was a thriving part of Detroit subculture.” Shirley was determined to do whatever it took to make the event happen, “from shoveling all the junk out of this space, and practically living there covered in filth for a month. The artists that came out from other parts of the country and the local artists all contributed with their time and money—it was a family affair and very humbling.”

Legendary Detroit writer DONT concurs. “I love to see people push the boundaries of what a space is and what a space can be,” he told Mass Appeal. “Detroit has a rich history of housing events in unique spaces. Wastedland had the feel of a 90’s rave setting mixed with a 907 Mad Max vibe.”

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The film itself is more of a remake than a continuation of Shirley’s original Wastedland short from 2008. Wastedland 2 is over half an hour long and takes a giant leap in terms of production value and storytelling. Its three central protagonists, Wolftits, Amoeba and Cranky Cat, follow a trail of tags left behind by the “all-knowing” UFO through desolate wintry landscapes and industrial ruins in an adventure to discover who they are and why they are compelled to do what they do: wake up, scout spots, paint spots, get wasted, pass out, and start all over again. Beer and weed are plentiful as the three stumble through encounters with strange characters who push them forward in their quest. Everyone wears elaborate costumes, in part because almost all of the cast members are active graffiti writers, but also because it adds a carnivalesque element of playful abstraction.

Shirley describes the film as “filled with mysticism, magic and science fiction elements.” Those familiar with the work of the cast (which also includes RAMBO, NOXER and EKG, among others) and with Shirley’s earlier film will discover many familiar visual elements and inside jokes. But the uninitiated will be equally entertained by the film’s lush visuals and possibly a little perplexed by a surprise twist, in a good way.

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“I have explored punk aesthetics in various mediums, and film making is one of them,” Shirley reflects. “It’s a challenge to incorporate the design and psychology of graffiti into a film and have it be relatable to both graffiti writers and the average person. I’d like to think I was successful at doing this, but I don’t relate well to television culture, so I honestly can’t tell you if it works for certain people.”

After all, a big part of the endeavor and of the string of release events is simply to bring creative individuals together and make something that is bigger than the sum of its parts. For Shirley, it’s a lifelong compulsion. “People are motivated to make art for different reasons, but for me it’s what I have to do,” he explains. “Art is how I relate to my being. If I didn’t do it, I’d be living under a bridge somewhere. But even then, I’d be doing it.”

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The next Wastedland 2 film premiere and exhibition will take place in Richmond, VA, on Nov. 4. A New York premiere, “the most epic of the tour,” according to the filmmaker, is also in the works. Stay tuned!

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