Industrial Strength Art

Tony Roko began his career as an artist in 1990 when he was 18 years old working the afternoon shift on the Ford assembly line. "I hated it," he admits. "It wasn't me. I dreaded going in every day."

To make things a bit more bearable Roko started sketching on his breaks. "I did it to kind of lose myself." It wasn't long before people began to take notice -- people like the UAW chairman and Ford plant manager.

"These 'top guys' approached me and I didn't even know who they were, I just knew they were the top," he remembers. Naturally Roko thought his days working on the line were numbered… and he was right: those higher-ups had something different in mind for their artistically-inclined worker: the Plant Beautification Program.

The program was designed with the intention of boosting employee morale. They were looking for someone internal to paint murals for the company and approached Roko with the offer.

"I couldn't believe it; I immediately agreed to do it," Roko says. "I went home that night and said, 'Oh my God, I'm NEVER going to be able to do this.'" Up until that point Tony had no experience painting murals, or even painting at all -- he had only ever done sketches, just for fun, with no art classes or formal training to back him. He had to crash course as a large-scale artist and was forced to learn -- quickly -- about the kind of materials he could use in the environment in which he was working.

Painting a mural on the wall of an auto plant is not quite the same as painting a mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. There is grease, grime and grit to contend with, industrial sludge that isn't conducive to watercolors or even oils. So Roko started using materials that had already proven resilient in that kind of environment: industrial enamels.

For 20 years he painted murals for the company and was well-known within the system. But as his skills as an artist developed, so did his sense of restlessness. "I began to feel a little unfulfilled as an artist," he explains. "I was basically painting Henry Ford over and over again. I was seeing him in my sleep!"

Finally Roko's wife suggested he paint what he wanted to paint on the side. "I had little faith in my abilities as a 'legit' artist," he admits, convinced that the "real" art world wouldn't be receptive to a corporate automotive muralist and that he wouldn't be accepted if he painted from the heart.

"But my wife encouraged me; she would set out all my paints at home and say, 'Tonight you paint.' I made a deal with her that I would paint whatever I was feeling. The first one immediately sold. Then I painted another one, and that immediately sold."

Then the sky fell.

During the economic collapse when the Big Three teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, the Plant Beautification Program was suspended and Roko was painting "safety icons" -- hazardous waste symbols and the like. In the meantime, his personal career began taking off. He was an instant hit among local collectors and has been covered in several local media outlets. Most recently he had his own show at Royal Oak's 323 Gallery, which is gaining a reputation for itself as being on the cutting edge of Detroit art.

Roko's work is distinctly "Detroit" in its un-ironic marriage of "high" and "low" art -- his paintings show a blue collar grit, a working man's sensibility, while also bursting with an energy and life all their own. In his work the art world collides with the world of industry in a way that could only be seen in Detroit: the urban realism of his hyper-stylized figures forever memorialized in industrial enamels and repurposed car paints on found boards and scrap metals.

His portraits, drawn straight from his imagination with inspiration from a specific set of eyes or hairstyle he might observe on the street, display a distinctive "Detroit swagger." He looks upon his subjects with the eyes of perpetual fascination, and in vibrant colors and shapes they come alive.

Ford reinstated the Plant Beautification Program in May 2010 and approached Roko once again to take it on. At that point he had established himself as an artist and told them, "Well, you know, I do this on the side now." To which they responded, "We know. Do what you want to do."

With his new-found creative freedom, Roko has begun a series of installation pieces that celebrate Detroit's automotive history while also nodding towards its transition into the future. The first such piece features an African American woman (an automotive worker) planting seeds in front of an old Albert Khan building -- past and present colliding to create something new. Roko intends it to be symbolic of Ford's comeback and shift in thinking: "It's really a new company on a lot of levels. They have a new way of thinking and I really tried to put that in this piece."

This installation, constructed with found industrial materials salvaged from the demolished Michigan Truck Plant, is currently housed in the old Wayne Assembly Plant (where Roko's original mural can be found, the irony of which isn't lost on him) while construction of the new training facility where it will finally be installed is completed.

"It SCREAMS Detroit and 'Detroit story,'" says Roko. "What WAS a world-class, state-of-the-art facility is now closed with rats and raccoons running around it. It's dilapidated now. It really parallels Detroit's story -- it's a mirror of what we've been experiencing here."

This new installation will be followed by a second made from salvaged materials from the demolition of this very plant. "These pieces have historical value as well," he explains. "Rarely can you paint something that has immediate historical significance using materials that have been servicing the company longer than most of its employees."

The materials Roko uses in his work are a visual echo of Detroit's image as the phoenix rising from the ashes; as the forgotten scraps are transformed into vibrant images of city life, so is the city and its signature industry experiencing a rebirth, a whole new identity borne from its previous persona.

Roko is an industrial painter who also uses industrial materials for his artistic paintings: one identity informs the other. "Everyone looks for kind of a niche to be different but it really just sort of unfolded and I stumbled across these things," he says.

He views his lack of so-called "professional" training and the unlikely environment he worked in for decades as a blessing: "If I hadn't been immersed in this auto concrete jungle I may not have had the foresight to use these materials in a nontraditional manner…it was really kind of an organic evolution."

Now he has pieces in the permanent collection of the Motown Museum and the State Capitol Building, is hosting solo shows as well as curating his own, and after only three years of solo work is already positioned to become one of the biggest names emerging from the Detroit art scene -- though he does still work for Ford.

"It's the craziest story," he states. "Even when I'm talking about it I can't believe it!"

Nicole Rupersburg is also a yummy Michigan-made product. A freelance writer, her main gig is writing Her previous article for Metromode was Made Here, Eaten Everywhere.

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All Photos by David Lewinski Photography

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