From doors to buildings to towering murals, Kelly Golden adds splashes of color across Detroit
By Samantha Lande
Featured photography by Matthew Piper
Walking around Detroit — or even driving on the freeway — you may have noticed some awe-inspiring, larger-than-life artwork: the massive painting on the side of Carhartt’s flagship store, which towers over I-94 and Cass Avenue; the revamped, 118-foot-tall Charles McGee mural in Capitol Park; giant logos splashed on the sides of buildings in Eastern Market.
Many of these are the vision and work of Kelly Golden, who creates murals and hand-painted signs for businesses and brands that add character and pops of color across the city.
Golden, 33, has been working her magic on Detroit’s walls and doorways for the last decade or so, but she’s been drawing since childhood: “I was always trying to replicate things, constantly copying sports logos and album covers,” she says. Now, she’s one of Detroit’s most in-demand sign painters, adding flair to everything from businesses’ doors to their ceilings (like her mural inside Detroit’s Warby Parker store).
Golden didn’t set out to be a sign painter. Ironically, it was her job at Zingerman’s Deli — which she began as student at the University of Michigan — that led her to her passion. Over the eight years she worked at Zingerman’s, Golden began painting some of the company’s grocery signs (which are designed and created by in-house artists). After coming across a sign-painting program at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, she decided to move to California to take courses from professor Doc Guthrie, a renowned sign-graphics instructor.
But Detroit, where new restaurants and stores were beginning to pop up, beckoned. “Just to have the opportunity to shape the way Detroit is going to look was amazing,” says Golden, who grew up on the East Coast and in Brighton and now lives in Fitzgerald on Detroit’s northwest side. She remembers walking over to businesses in her neighborhood and convincing them they needed signs. “When I first came back [to the city], I was hustling.”
Sometimes Golden has full creative liberty — she helped with branding on the Broadway Corned Beef sign in Eastern Market, for one — and sometimes she takes cues from business owners. That was the case when she was hired to paint a logo and mural at Jack White’s Third Man Records in Detroit’s Midtown. “He’s a visionary,” Golden says of the rocker. “He’s got a different kind of brain than most of us, and it was really cool to play a small role in bringing some of his ideas to life.”
“Kelly is a fabulous collaborator,” says Kelly Elliott, who worked with Golden on the recent redo of Royal Oak’s Bowlero Lanes & Lounge and praises the artist’s “insights and imagination” on refining the bowling alley’s playful, retro design. “Her attention to detail made all the difference. Her artwork is done with love, and it truly shows.”
Some of Golden’s projects are bigger than others — literally. The Carhartt mural, for example, measures 55 feet by 200 feet. “It’s terrifying to be up there painting,” she says, adding that she either works on a huge lift or a stage swing. (Her rule of thumb: Don’t look down.) And they’re just as massive in scope: “Remember how you used to grid in elementary school?” she asks. “That’s how I have to do [the design]; grid it out and go square by square.”
Despite the painstaking detail and potential falling hazards, it’s clear that Golden is passionate about what she does. “I love to get to know the people and help the places in my neighborhood where I shop and eat,” she says. “I love that I get to work with my hands in a way that’s creative but also really technical.” Plus, she adds, “Detroit’s a city in flux. I feel super lucky to have a say in the future of the visual landscape here.”