Once viewed as a sign of inner city decay, graffiti is now widely recognized as an authentic art form frequently displayed in trendy urban enclaves as an enduring tie to the distinct ethnic, racial, and religious origins of old neighborhoods.
In tandem with the rise of hip hop, punk, and street culture, graffiti art emerged in the late 70’s and early 80’s in virtually every facet of pop culture as an appealing and rebellious new art form.
During that period Detroit was the perfect breading ground for the medium as the decline of real estate value left wide swaths of urban landscape as blank canvas for emerging street artists.
“The city was so blighted back then that you could paint anywhere,” said Detroit graffiti artist Antonio “Shades” Agee.
“I mean there was nothing here. It was like Armageddon. I was painting on the old Woolworth building like It was a commissioned piece,” he said.
This sentiment was echoed by fellow Detroit street artist Felle who came of age during a magical time in the city for street artists looking to make their mark.
“Unlike other major cities, you didn’t have to hit the expressway. You didn’t have to hit buildings that were tucked away out of site,” he shared. “There was so much dilapidation and blight in the city that you could paint anywhere.”
In the decades since cutting their teeth as pioneers of Detroit’s street art scene, both Felle and Shades have risen to national acclaim for their inventive and unique graffiti art.
Recently commissioned by Ford Motor Company to design individual murals inside of the Michigan Central Station, the Detroit-bred artists have come full circle as their unconventional career paths have lead them back to where they first began.
Felle and Shades recently sat down with FREC CITY to discuss this full circle moment and share how it feels to leave their fingerprint on one of the city’s most iconic landmarks.
When did you start doing graffiti art in the city?
Felle: I started painting in ’82…’83, around age 11. I was just trying to find my voice artistically and there weren’t any formal options where I come from on the south end of Detroit.
Shades: I was around 15 years old. I could always draw but I don’t have the attention span to sit at a desk and draw like a regular artist. Spray painting was really fast and large scale and exciting so I was like “sweet, I can do that.”
Was there a community of street artists here in Detroit? Were the two of you connected back then?
Shades: I remember Felle, he was always good. We would see each other but we were both doing our own thing. It was definitely good to know that there was someone else, it was like, “Okay, I’m not on an island all by myself.”
Felle: Exactly. I bumped into Shades when I was like 17 years old. I remember seeing him painting and I thought “Yes! There’s somebody else.’
Unlike graffiti artists in New York and L.A., the two of you came up in a city where there were very little limitations on where you could paint. Were there spaces in the city that you found more appealing than others?
Shades: I always looked for a challenge. Everybody loves a flat brick wall but sometimes you want to push yourself in a difficult space. If there’s an opportunity to see if you can paint over pipes and barriers, you’ve got to go for it. That’s what makes graffiti art so appealing, you get to paint on things and in spaces were no one else would even think to paint.
Felle: I used to look for spots where people could see it but were chilling on it. Like, “how can I bring attention to this nook that people pass every day but overlook.”
I loved to go into spots like the old train station. I did a few pieces in there and it was cool. It felt important. Just being alone in that building is enough to inspire you.
How is Detroit’s street art style different from that of other cities?
Shades: In Detroit, there’s a good mix of grassroots pieces and commissioned art. People from all over the world get commissioned to come in and paint in the city so when you look at the art downtown, you can see the influence coming from different places.
This city has always been a melting pot and it’s nice in a way because you get to walk around the city and get a world view of what street art graffiti is. At the same time, you can also branch out into Corktown or the East side and find grassroots art that reflects the culture of in those areas.
Given your personal history in Detroit and witnessing the city’s evolution through various stages, what does this new period of revitalization mean to you as residents and artists?
Shades: It’s all good! I mean, no one is trying to take our city from us. I think it’s amazing personally, because I don’t have to fight to make my art work acceptable.
Felle: I agree. If you had asked either of us that question back when we were starting out at 15 or 16, I think our answers would have been quite different, but I’m 46 years old now. I have two children and I still have a strong passion for what I do, but I’m not jumping from building to building anymore to write what I have to say or express myself artistically.
This revitalization gives us the opportunity to still do what we love and support our families.
As a resident, I do think that change is good for this city, I think that when other artists and creative people come into a city, it adds a layer of color that benefits everyone. It gives more opportunities and more platforms for those of us who are already here.
Stay tuned for more to come as we continue to track Felle and Shades on their artistic journey through Detroit.