Artist Profile: Hygienic Dress League

When is a corporation not a corporation? When it’s an art concept that uses slick advertizing style pieces to spotlight Detroit’s vacant buildings. WDET’s Rob St. Mary introduces us to the Detroit street art collective known as the Hygienic Dress League.

(click the audio link above to hear the story)

Most people first encounter the Hygienic Dress League through its installations. Big high gloss advertizing-like pop art influenced pieces on vacant buildings around Downtown Detroit. The art often features flur-de-lis, pigeons and fashionably dressed men and women wearing gas masks. Local business owner Claire Nelson says she encountered the group’s work a few years ago.

“I think the first piece of I saw of theirs was I saw from the Park Bar downtown looking outside the windows at the building across the street and I didn’t know the Hygienic Dress League brand at that point. So, it started a conversation at the bar where a bunch of us were talking about it. Who’s behind it? What did it mean? How did it happen? It also started a conversation too about that building that it was on and what was the story behind that building.”

The story of the Hygienic Dress League starts about four years ago, and about as far away from Detroit as you can get while still being in the United States. In 2006, Steve Coy and his wife, Dorota, were living and working in Honolulu, Hawaii when they created a gallery show under the name.

“We also decided that we wanted to deal with pop culture and fashion. So, we did that… we made this show. And then after than Dorota and I decided that we wanted to move to Detroit because it seemed like a really good place to do some art. And so basically we loved the name so much that we wanted to use it for our new project which was this corporate that we were going to form. So, we formed our corporation officially in the State of Michigan and then we started advertizing on the street level doing some street art on some of these buildings that were boarded up.”

Steve Coy – who is a Metro Detroit native – says the concept of the Hygienic Dress League is sort of a comment on the ubiquity of advertizing.

“Our mission is to promote our mission. (laughs). It’s a self-serving mission of advertizing… it’s just a self-promotion machine.”

Even though the Hygienic Dress League doesn’t create anything, it does have a corporate structure in the narrative flow of its art. With their logo… the ever faithful city dwelling pigeon – the Coys have created three levels of employees within the corporation. On top are the executives. They are hollow suits who get all the glory from the work of their underlings. In the middle are the transporters, spy-like characters responsible for moving the brand from place to place, and finally, at the bottom are the extractors, who do the menial jobs. They haven’t been introduced to the public, yet… but are expected to be part of an upcoming piece. By using the structure of a company and the high gloss of commercial advertising, Coy says the through line of the group’s work points to larger themes.

“I think it questions the value of things. I think it’s a deconstruction of commercialism, corporatism and marketing… how you can create value based on how you present yourself.”

The Hygienic Dress League has been presenting itself in Detroit since 2008. The collective’s work has been seen on unused buildings in Rivertown, around Eastern Market and near Grand Circus Park.
The group’s latest piece is currently in the works at another vacant building – the Roosevelt Hotel in Corktown. This will be their most ambitious piece to date. Instead of a painting like previous pieces… this new concept called “No Vacancy” will be a 30-foot by nine-foot solar-powered neon sign.

“The first piece that we did was downtown at the GAR Building and we basically did the whole side of the building with the pigeons… which is our logo for Hygiene Dress League… so, we sort of are just bringing another version of our logo and doing it in a different way.”

In order to pull it off, the Hygienic Dress League received some outside help. Between a grant from the Knight Foundation, on-line fundraising and help from local business owners, about $12,000 was raised in a matter of weeks to bring “No Vacancy” to life.

One of the people who helped with the fundraising is Jerry Paffendorf. He’s one of the co-founders of the Imagination Station – a community space currently under construction in Corktown. He says “No Vacancy” is provocative because it will get people who stumble upon it to think about how the long abandoned Roosevelt Hotel and how it can be re-born.

“It’s got four custom shaped neon glass tubes that look like birds that are going to blink on and off and it’s going to proclaim Hygienic Dress League and No Vacancy. For all those who that come down to the park or drive by on Michigan Avenue or enjoy a meal at Slow’s and look over and go “What is that thing? What is that building? WOW! Holy cow! What’s happening with this spot?””

And Coy says getting a reaction like that is one of the goals of the collective’s art.

“To call attention to these spaces and maybe in some way incite people to do something with it. Ours is a temporary solution obviously, a city filled with our paintings on boarded up buildings is not going to solve much… I but I think it’s a really good start.”

Looking forward… Coy says he wants the Hygienic Dress League to continue to reward the curiosity of the public who stumble upon its art in the streets of Detroit.

I’m Rob St. Mary – WDET News.

Note: And the Hygienic Dress League will unveil its latest piece – entitled “No Vacancy” – on the side of the Roosevelt Hotel in Corktown. The event and performance will take place at sundown Saturday.