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A Saginaw artist tries to make things better, and the town responds

The entire city of Saginaw is a canvas for 37-year-old artist Eric Schantz. But the reverse of that statement is also true. Schantz’s body is a canvas for this city that struggles with poverty, unemployment, and violence.

He’s got a giant tattoo with the words “Saginaw Proper” scrawled onto his muscular right forearm, in red lettering with blue embellishments.

“It reminds me every day to make something beautiful out of the pain this city has caused me. The red letters represent the blood that has been shed and reminds me of all the friends I have lost to this city’s violence. Or the suicides and overdoses that are a result of the depressed nature of our reality.”

The guy is hard-core Saginaw and he is driven to make his town a better place.

Schantz specializes in colorful murals splashed onto historic buildings, abandoned structures and even people’s houses.

One of his most popular pieces is the “Imagine in Saginaw” mural. The mural is twelve feet high and 110 feet long and takes up the entire side of an old brick building in downtown Saginaw. It consists of giant black words on a white backdrop. 

“It’s got the words respect, peace, hope, pride and love,” says Schantz. He says they are “word triggers” that can help people imagine different possibilities in Saginaw.

And the people of Saginaw are noticing the hundreds of pieces of art he’s put up in the past six years. Schantz says everyday someone approaches him on the street to tell him how much they like what he does. He also likes to say he can walk into any bar in this town and someone will buy him a drink.

Kate Scheid-Weber is the head of Francis Reh Academy. She spotted his artwork as she drove around town and she liked it so much, she invited him to paint a mural in the school’s hallway.

So Schantz came to the school and held a brainstorming session with the students. He wanted to know what kind of art they wanted in their school.

Together they decided on the concept of electrical power, and the artwork features images of plugs and outlets and a giant glowing brain. It’s meant to inspire the students to plug in and engage with their education.

Schantz spray-painted the electrical images in bright colors along a row of lockers in a graffiti style. Scheid-Weber says the kids love it and they’re proud to have this original artwork in their school.

Can public art help prevent crime in Saginaw?

Crime prevention officer Henry Reyna is also a fan of Schantz’s work. He’s with the Saginaw Township Police and Reyna and he’s taken advanced training in something known as “crime prevention through public art.” (Yep, that’s really a thing.)

The idea is to strategically place art in public places in order to attract more people, which in turn can help prevent crime.

“Good foot traffic to any community that’s suffering is beneficial, because all of a sudden good and honest people are there,” Reyna explains.

Reyna says Schantz’s art murals in Saginaw have become a destination hot spot where people come to get their high school portraits and wedding pictures taken.

Over time, the artist and the cop have become friends. Together they’ve been trying to drum up more support and funding to put up more art in Saginaw. (Reyna says public art can reduce police call volume and help save the city money.)

But the thing that satisfies Schantz the most is when his artwork brings happiness to regular folks who might not think about art on a daily basis.

Schantz remembers a specific night when he’d been working on a mural with several friends.

“We actually had somebody come out of woods underneath the bridge with a rifle on his shoulder and a hatchet. He asked if we were the guys who were making all this art, and we said yeah.”

The guy told him he liked their art and then he invited them to his camp to have some raccoon he had been cooking. (They passed on the offer.)

Schantz says, “When a train-hopping hobo offers you lunch for making art, you know you are doing something good in the community.”

For more pictures of Schantz's work, visit the Michigan Radio Picture Project.

Kyle Norris is from Michigan and spent ten years as a host and reporter with Michigan Radio, the state’s largest NPR-affiliate. He lives in Seattle and works as a substitute host and producer at KNKX.