TALKING SHOPS: Detroit Commercial Folk Art


Talking Shops: Detroit Commercial Archaeology
Author: David Clements
Wayne State University Press

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Cruise down the streets of Detroit, through vast residential neighborhoods, industrial landscapes, and huge areas of open land and I still feel a vibrant and evolving city. What I have discovered on those city streets are the fun and life-filled efforts to maintain islands of safety and prosperity. You see it in the reclaimed banks now housing various churches. The volume of bright colors and humorous slogans on the walls of storefronts, auto repair garages, and hair salons testify to the endurance of these business owners who struggle every day to make an honest living. Mixed into these Talking Shop visual images are strong religious references, the cement that bonds many people to the community.

I have been documenting Detroit for over 30 years. The images are often created by true artists: Those reclaimed banks, car washes, churches and storefronts explode in acid yellows, hot pinks and turquoise. Buildings evangelize with meticulous words and assertive messages that seem to “talk,” if not shout, to passersby. Portraits of business owners, examples of classic hair styles, and dreams of driving a sharp car are brilliantly displayed. Art meets commerce.

I recognize the significance of documenting, if not preserving, America’s ever-changing commercial landscape. These images reflect a slice of historic, Detroit-style American folk art perhaps founded on a more lass ire fair value system instilled by the original French colonialists. Yet, even more so than diners and roadside attractions, these images are ephemeral and altogether fleeting. Indeed, many subjects have been painted over or they have disappeared. As important as they are to our cultural way of life, they are often regarded as throwaway. I believe these subjects represent real American individuality, and deserve some cultural awareness of their existence. The cumulative energy of these photos document our own history in our own time. And most of all, it is my belief that readers will enjoy the experience and look around a little more to discover little unique slices of life and vitality in our environment.

Visit our online store here selection of TALKING SHOPS images for sale.


Talking Shops documents the signage of independent predominantly Afro-American business in Detroit. Clements, an urban archeologist, believes, “Even more so than diners and roadside attractions, the images of America’s changing commercial landscape are fleeting and should be documented, if not preserved”.

-SCA Journal, Society for Commercial Archeology 2005

Talking Shops captures not only the artistry of a specific urban region, but the personalities of the people and the community. The photographs pull us into an unseen narrative of the shop owners and their patrons, making us want to look at the images again and again.

-RawVision Magazine 2006

The collected images are the essence of folk art. Some have been created by business owners and sign companies. Most have been made by anonymous artists who lack formal training, but have the knack for evoking a response or laugh.

-Detroit Free Press 2005

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