Grafaktri: A2's Unseen Hand of Creativity

If you follow the maize-lined road into downtown Ann Arbor from the Main Street exit off M-14, there is a little emerald green building on the left just before the New Center building and Art Train. The single-story industrial structure can generously be called nondescript. It's a building Ann Arborites pass a thousand times a year and never give a second thought to.

That's their loss.

Pull back that curtain of Rustbelt stereotype and you'll find an Oz of new economy innovation. This island for misfit creatives is commonly known as Grafaktri, and a middle-aged man named WAP John is the wizard behind its magic -- the Cheshire Cat of creativity.

"It's like you went down the rabbit hole in WAP's wonderland," says Lori Saginaw, the wife of Zingerman's co-founder Paul Saginaw, who has worked with WAP John for years. "It's magical in the way it unlocks your imagination. It's an idea factory. It's imagination transformed into reality."


There is a cliche 'Don't judge a book by its cover.' In that case, don't judge 1200 N Main by its exterior. Its real story is on the inside.

And what a story. The building is an eclectic mix of historic structure and cutting edge contemporary design. A place where old windows, doors and fireplaces find new life and graphic novel-style art covers the walls. And it's all, well mostly, the brainchild of WAP John's leftfield-centric mind.

WAP John (WAP stands for Waldemar Alfred Paul) founded Grafaktri in the early 1980s and now employs six people creating graphic art signs for Tree Town's heavy hitters. You can see it everywhere from the building names at the University of Michigan and the menus at Zingerman's. It also creates trade-show displays and other large pieces of advertising art.

"WAP is a tall guy, like 6 foot, 4 inches tall," Saginaw says. "His ideas are tall. He executes tall. His desire to push solutions and strategies are as tall as he is. He never does anything in a small way."

John's employees work in 9,000 square feet of space spread out through the main and basement levels of the building. They use a hodgepodge of machines that John has collected over the years. One of them looks just as crisp and clean as the day John found it in the 1980s, and it's still run by its original Mac computer. Next to it is a late 1990s iMac. Next to that is a modern-day Mac. They all give the appearance of playing telephone to relay directions to the ancient (by tech standards) but still functional machine.

"Things morph to whatever we do," John says. "Things change a lot."

Junkyard dog

The one constant for John in the last thirty-some years has been Ann Arbor. The Birmingham native came to Ann Arbor in the early 1970s to study art at the University of Michigan. Vietnam War activism, liberal culture, and nearby family made staying an easy choice. He became a young creative who planted roots in Ann Arbor to grow his business and family
before it was fashionable, or at least a policy objective handed down from Lansing.

"It's not like I was an anomaly," John says. "This is the coolest town in Michigan. It was a no-brainer to stay."

He ended up restoring an abandoned house up the street to what is now Angelo's (It's now the only residential house left on a block the university is taking over) making it the home for, eventually, his wife and twin daughters. He also got his builder and contractor's license, along with a lifetime's worth of experience on how to wire, plumb and lay tile. He helped create the interiors for a lot of Main Street's restaurants in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Maude's, with the founders of Zingerman's.

In 1982, John lucked into the space that is now Grafaktri's home. A friend in the process of moving out of town was offered studio space there. He happened to tell John, who ran over to check it out, fell in love at first sight, and signed a lease shortly after.

"I was always looking for studio space," John says. "It was total serendipity that I got this place."

The building was constructed in the early 20th Century and produced piston rings until the 1950s. Some of the wood floors are still black, stained with so much oil that it makes it nearly impossible for paint to stick to the ceilings for very long. It went out of business in the 1950s and soon after was taken over by the Lansky brothers, who traded it for property that is now Wheeler Park.

Aubrey and Gil Lansky turned the old building into their junkyard, and they lived up to the stereotype, chomping on worn cigars and speaking in gruff voices. While their persona and collection of debris would scare away many people, John was not one of them.

"I loved being next to a junkyard," John says. "I was over there everyday. They would bring shit in that was great."

He climbed all over the truckloads of corporate cast-offs dumped there, buying it for a few pennies on the dollar and dragging it a few feet to his studio space. Some of those things are still in use, like the 1970s-era coffee machine. John keeps it in a cubbyhole next to his office with a stack of dimes on it so he can make a cup of what he still considers the best coffee he can find. Grafaktri is filled with finds like these.

"Everything is scrap and salvaged stuff," John says. "I have gotten stuff from some pretty cool places over the years, legally and illegally."

The green steel windows that he salvaged from the Mosher Jordan and Stockwell dorms when U-M was renovating them were legally obtained. Those windows now line Grafaktri's interior offices, creating a signature look for the space. He also hopped a fence decked out with "No Trespassing" signs that surrounded a downtown building about to be razed and "salvaged" doors that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill. Those now hang in Grafaktri's doorways. An old 19th Century iron fireplace he helped save with a relative now wows visitors in Grafaktri's entryway.

By the early 1990s, the Lanskys and their junkyard were gone, replaced by the New Center development. John and the others he shared the building with (Ascott T-shirt company and a metal worker named Hosford & Co) bought its 24,000 square feet and turned it into the city's first business condominium, ensuring its survival.

Today, its big bay of windows overlook the railroad tracks that connect Detroit to Chicago, and the Argo Pond portion of the Huron River. Trains rumble by a few times a day and rowers glide by even more often. This type of traffic dominates Grafaktri's world. The whizz of passing automobiles from Main Street doesn't even register behind the Rustbelt curtain.

Hiding in plain sight

The unassuming exterior and close proximity to a junkyard served a couple of purposes below the surface. It not only allowed John to be a kid in a candy store of creativity, but kept nosy busybodies out of his business.

"People didn't mess with you here," John says, raising his hands and imitating a junkyard dog. "Ohhh... The spooky junkyard. Dangerous."

Privacy actually allowed John free reign to maximize his creativity. His building was so old and out of code, it would have been wrapped in red tape elsewhere in the city. The proximity to a junkyard meant John could paint it whatever colors he wanted. It's the same old story of economic depression creating economic opportunity for the small business owners who create most of the new jobs in today's economy.

That junkyard, considered blight by most, also provided the cheap start-up costs for John to get his business off the ground. This depressed real estate, along with his formerly abandoned home, gave John the opportunity to create his own Bohemia.

"It's pretty straight forward, pretty orthodox," says David Brophy, professor of finance at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. "It's how economic reconstruction happens."

In a sense, Grafaktri has become a victim of its own success. The key factors that made it so attractive decades ago are largely gone now in Ann Arbor, where real-estate is among the highest priced in Michigan. Many of John's new birds of a feather are flocking in places like Ypsilanti's Spur Studios or Detroit's Russell Industrial Center, where the prices are low and rules are few.

But John and Grafaktri aren't going anywhere. He is planning for a major expansion of his business and possibly even a name change, and is still working on making Ann Arbor a better place. Today he is one of the main proponents of the U.S. 23 commuter rail line, coining its name, WALLY. And like a benevolent super villain, he does it all from his unassuming headquarters on North Main.

"He is always hungry to manufacture something new that is striking, profound, and provocative," Saginaw says. "He is immediately figuring out how to do it."

Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Concentrate and its sister publication metromode. He now misses the Lansky junkyard along North Main Street after touring Grafaktri. Send feedback here.

All Photos Were Taken by Dave Lewinski at Grafaktri in Ann Arbor

Dave Lewinski
is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He's a big fan of WAP.

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