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Visual arts > Sketches in Grit

The Detroit Lives dude

Phillip Lauri circled the globe, sold out and found redemption in Detroit

MT photo: Travis R. Wright
Phillip Lauri in the lab.
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Published 4/21/2010

You can catch longhair Phillip Lauri filming indie docs about Detroit's urban farmers, community activists, artists and transplanted brains. You'll see him painting cartoonish murals adorned with his "Detroit Lives" logo on derelict Detroit structures, the same logo he silk-screens onto consumer goods, such as pillows and hooded sweatshirts. And if you scan such Detroit-centric websites as detroityes.com and sweet-juniper.com, you've likely stumbled upon detroitlives.org, Lauri's pro-Motor City site. His latest project is a user-generated guidebook to Detroit.

The genial 27-year-old talks as if he's equal parts surfer-dude chill and hypermotivational speaker. He talks of Detroiters who share his faith in the city, folks such as Mark Covington, Chazz Miller, Jerry Paffendorf and Claire Nelson. Nothing excites Lauri more than the idea of a city renaissance, which is funny, considering his mantra two years ago was "Anywhere but Detroit."

Each summer thousands of college educated metro-Detroiters take off for cities like Chicago. Local guy Lauri found his way back, and found himself in the process.


MT:
You set out, post-college, to trip around the world. How successful were you?

Phillip Lauri: Completely. We touched down in Sydney, Australia, and bought an old Volvo station wagon to drive around the east coast of the country, but the car broke down. ... We were traveling through Coober Pedy, the opal capital of the world, with two Swedish guys and a couple of Finnish girls when it happened. It'd been leaking oil for weeks ... we cut our losses and flew to Thailand. The best part of that trip was the week we spent on an island swimming in coves and riding mopeds. From Thailand we went to Hong Kong, then continued to travel overland through the border town of Shenzhen and through the eastern half of China.

We took the train from Beijing into Mongolia where we fucking rode donkeys and horses. ... Then we hopped on the Trans-Siberian Rail for a six-day trip through Russia. That got us to Moscow and from there we went to St. Petersburg and took the ferry into Finland, but Helsinki sucked, so we went to Estonia. Estonia was sa-weet, it was like Bruges and some of the smaller towns in Holland — old-world glamour without all the fucking tourists. From there it was Sweden to Hungary to Turkey to Africa. The trip there was intense: overland from Kenya to Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. We drove a car along the southern coast, and ended in Cape Town. We flew home from there.

MT: How'd you pay it?

Lauri: I busted my ass and saved. For one summer, I lived in Houston where I had an internship for BP [British Petroleum]. I was getting paid pretty well there, but I also worked a bartending job downtown. So I'd work from six in the morning to four in the afternoon and tend bar from seven at night till two in the morning. I was banking, dude. ...

MT: How was the transition back home; you got a job with BP in Chicago, right?

Lauri: Yeah. I wasn't home 30 days before I was sitting at a fucking desk.

MT: But Chicago didn't last?

Lauri: I was there just over a year. I was honest when I quit. I told them my heart wasn't in it. I was leaving to open a youth hostel in Portland. Something I could put my heart into. First, though, I bought a pickup truck and drove around the country alone for three months, sleeping in the back of the truck most of the time.

MT: How do you mean?

Lauri: I went to high school and strived to get good grades, then went to college, studied business and strived to do well there. More or less, I was adhering to the standards. ...

MT: Did you cut your hair for the gig in Chicago?

Lauri: I did. But I cut it into a mullet — my bold statement that the fire was still alive.

MT: So, what happened with the youth hostel in Portland?

Lauri: When I got there, my business partner dropped out. Basically, he got a girlfriend. So, yeah, the hostel didn't work out. I liked Portland, though, so I figured I'd stick around and try to make something work. I interviewed with a marketing agency and got put on this tour representing Crocs, the shoe company. We went to pro-cycling events, marathons and music festivals telling people about Crocs. It was fun ... I still own a pair ... but I got laid off when Crocs kinda hit the shitter, so I went to South America for four months and wrote a book.

MT: Really?

Lauri: It's partial fiction about a guy living in Chicago who goes through a quarter-life crisis. Pretty much, it's about me. I'm still a little queasy about the third act. One of these days I'll get around to finishing it. Because I couldn't finish the book and I had all these airline miles built up, I grabbed a flight back out to Australia and spent another month there. I felt like I was on top of the universe. Everything had found its place and balance — I was ready to come back home. That's how Detroit Lives was born.

MT: Was it always the plan, to return to Detroit?

Lauri: If two years ago you told me I'd be here in Detroit, you'd watch my jaw drop to the floor. My motto at that point was "Anywhere but Detroit." Seriously.

MT: What changed?

Lauri: There were a few things ... but I still can't really describe the force that pulled me back to Detroit proper. The connection's always been there, through my grandpa Phil. He ran a supermarket up on the eastside, Lauri Brothers' Supermarket on Gratiot and Van Dyke. He used to tell us these stories about Jufaw the Italian cowboy, stories about hocking goods at Eastern Market, about how during the race riots he protected the store from the roof with a shotgun. Every time we'd go over to his house we'd end up playing pool in the basement, but also in the basement were cabinets chock loaded with shit. He was an avid photographer and videographer, so he had tons of old cameras and reels of film — every trip to the basement became a picture show of Detroit. I think that, by some virtue in those visits, is where my relationship with Detroit started.

MT: Not far from Eastern Market and just steps from Gratiot Ave., you painted a Detroit Lives mural. How do you describe the project?

Lauri: At the end of the day, I think anything that Detroit Lives is behind is something that can make you think and make you smile — maybe not in that order.

MT: Who are some Detroiters that inspire you?

Lauri: I look up to Toby Barlow a lot. He's the creative director of Team Detroit; he wrote an epic poem called Sharp Teeth; he's one of the people behind Public Pool, this ongoing arts project in Hamtramck where Design 99 used to be; and he's a champion for Detroit who isn't even from here. He's got ideas. I wouldn't say we are good friends, but we've interacted around town and he was central to this film [The Farmer and the Philosophe] I made. Whenever I hear him talk, he wraps everything up into a succinct dialogue. There's no bullshit with that guy.

MT: What do you say about Detroit to people not from the area?

Lauri: That there's a creative and industrious spirit, a force that you have to see if not feel to believe. And I tell them that this town isn't for everybody, because it's not. If you've got the right combination of vision, ambition, and self-start drive you can sail to the moon in this town. If you've got a voice, it will be heard and if you've got an idea and the wherewithal to see it through, it can materialize. You can do anything from Detroit.

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to twright@metrotimes.com.

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