Bringing a message of hope to life

A PrEP coordinator who’s also an artist, Demetruis R. Green had never painted anything so big. Covering one side of the Wayne Health building in Detroit is a mural titled The Key to Ending the HIV Epidemic.

Green, as he prefers to be called, works for Wayne Health, the physicians group affiliated with Wayne State University in the Motor City. When the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ HIV prevention awareness program funded a mural project to make the Detroit public health STI clinic where he works more noticeable, his colleagues convinced him to join. Green envisioned creating a vivid message of hope and growth. 

“I started thinking about my friendships, about my clients, and I was like, well, if I do this, let me really pull at some heartstrings,” he says. “I didn’t want to be so direct when it comes to talking about HIV and U equals U because, in the field, I feel like we often get sterile information; we don't get to see the bright side of things. We don't get to see what it looks like when a person is living with HIV fabulously. I wanted to make people feel like they were at a peaceful place.”

Covering the exterior wall is a painting of a magical garden containing three portals, linked by a red ribbon that spans the mural. Each portal has a different theme and symbolic meaning. Bright gears turn with sunflowers, symbolizing progress and hope in “PrEP Works,” the mural’s left portal. Poised on a toadstool is a purple butterfly. “Butterflies represent freedom,” Green says.

The middle portal is a tribute to his hometown. “I'm a Detroit native, born and raised, so I had to give a shout out to the 313,” he says. With the city skyline in the background, another butterfly hovers above a beaker; the flask is spilling out a liquid rainbow. “It represents modern science,” he adds, “how it touches our city and gives us hope toward ending the HIV epidemic.”

The third portal is a celebration of U=U, Undetectable equals untransmittable, the scientific principle that if the viral load of a person on antiretroviral HIV treatment is too low to be measured, then the virus cannot be transmitted through sexual contact.

A heart, with the message U=U, sits atop a bed of purple feathers. To one side is a golden key; next to the key, a keyhole leading to the Detroit portal. At the mural’s left edge floats another butterfly. This butterfly, though, symbolizes metamorphosis, Green says. In addition to escape and independence, the purple color of the feathers represents intuition. Nervous about taking on the entire project alone, he asked local muralist Lindy Shewbridge to paint the featherbed, knowing that her favorite color is purple.

...if I do this, let me really pull at some heartstrings.

The mural is filled with personal symbolism and double meanings. A ladybug appears on the Detroit portal, referring to his nickname for his sister. Roses adorn the mural’s garden motif. “They take over the painting because that's my grandmother's maiden name,” he says. A ceramic artist, Green’s grandmother was a major and early influence in his life.

“My grandmother lived to be 101 years old; she passed away last year,” he says. “She worked with ceramics a lot. I watched her go to the kiln and make these beautiful pieces. When I got to high school, my first job was at a pottery house.”

Recognizing her son’s creative talent, his mother started buying him art supplies, and he got into painting. “I developed a sense for surrealism—you know, when you have this alternate universe of what you think reality is,” he says. “I like to think about artists like Salvador Dali. He was like a huge inspiration. I grew up looking at his images of melting clocks and how he would make abstract landscapes come to life.”

Green brought The Key to Ending the HIV Epidemic to life in about 12 hours over the course of four days, using spray paint instead of his usual oil paints. The formal unveiling was held in July. Sometimes during his lunch break, he likes to stand outside near his mural and anonymously listen to people’s comments or watch as they take photos. He won’t reveal himself as the artist, because he thinks they might react differently if they knew who he was.

As a PrEP coordinator and early intervention specialist, it’s Green’s job to give people the information they need to know. Through his art, he wants to draw from them what they feel.

“Before I even tell somebody what something means, I want to hear how they feel when they experience or see it,” he explains. “I feel like that's what art is all about.”  

The Detroit Public Health STI Clinic is located at 50 E. Canfield St. Follow Demetruis Green on Instagram and TikTok: @mrvenus0000.