Artist Tony Roko partners with local restaurants to help with pandemic relief efforts
By Jamie Ludwig
Plymouth artist Tony Roko’s style is unmistakable, with vivid portraits that embrace Detroit’s gritty spirit and recall its industrial history from the Gilded Age to the present. His work has been commissioned by celebrities such as Jay Leno and Lady Gaga, and has appeared in a wide variety of settings including the permanent collection of the Michigan Holocaust Memorial Center and on the labels of more than 20 beer varieties from Detroit’s Atwater Brewery.
His latest work is on display in an entirely different setting: on the walls of local restaurants. The paintings, which feature bold, vibrant images of chefs, bartenders, and other hospitality-industry workers, are part of Roko’s Restaurant Relief Fund initiative, which kicked off in July.
The artist has partnered with 10 Detroit spots, including Karl’s, Grey Ghost, and Shewolf to feature his paintings — complete with a QR code that, upon scanning, directs patrons to his website, where they can purchase a signed 16-inch-by-20-inch print. A portion of the proceeds benefits the restaurant to use as they see fit during the pandemic. (Prints cost $100 each, with a portion of the proceeds going towards the relief fund.)
Roko’s project grew out of sheer admiration for the workers who kept the hospitality industry running during an extremely challenging time of shutdowns and worker shortages: In May, TheWashington Post reported that there were 1.7 million fewer jobs in the industry than before the pandemic. “It’s interesting how fast we realized that [hospitality workers] were as essential as health care workers, because everyone needed to eat,” says Roko, who began painting the restaurant-themed portraits last summer.
“I was so inspired by their commitment and dedication and devotion. Anybody that has a restaurant worker as a loved one knows that these are the hardest hustlers of the workforce. They’re picking up shifts and working doubles and putting themselves at risk of catching the virus. It really is a testament to who they are.”
When he had a few pieces complete, Roko began thinking about how he could use his art to support local restaurants, and he reached out to some of his favorite places to partner on the project. (The total amount raised by the relief fund is unknown as of press time.) Though the initiative is still young, Detroit restaurateurs are excited about its potential and believe Roko’s paintings enhance the beauty of their establishments.
“We love it,” Karl’s chef and proprietor Kate Williams says of “Straight Shot,” the painting that’s installed in her restaurant. “It’s a woman pouring a drink or water and she has sort of a Zen look — like she’s owning the place. The burnt orange very much fits our aesthetic too.”
Apparatus Room chef Thomas Lents also admires Roko’s paintings, and says that patrons comment daily on “The Butcher,” which hangs at his restaurant in the Foundation Hotel. (The portrait depicts a serious-looking butcher with a cleaver in one hand, and a chicken in the other.) “While we have always embraced the importance of art in our dining spaces, we hope through projects like this we can come out of this period with closer and more personal partnerships and collaborations,” Lents says.
Born in Michigan to parents who’d emigrated from Montenegro, Roko broke into the art world at age 19 while working at a Ford plant. His managers noticed his artistic talent after sketches he’d drawn made the rounds and pulled him off his assembly-line job to create murals as part of the company’s plant-beautification program. He spent the next three decades as the automaker’s resident artist while building his fine arts career.
Now 50, Roko has made it a mission to use art to support members of his community, just as he was supported decades ago: He’s the founder of the Art Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides artistic opportunities for underserved communities and at-risk youth. (A portion of proceeds from the Restaurant Relief Fund paintings benefits the Foundation.)
As for growing the relief fund, Roko says he’s had interest from as far away as New Orleans, and he intends to build new partnerships and continue the program as long as the hospitality industry is still struggling. “Artists and chefs and industry workers — we’re like cousins,” he says. “It’s cool to cross-pollinate in those respective disciplines. We stumbled on it organically, but hopefully this inspires more collaborative efforts between artisans so we can all grow together.”
Art of Roko