Antonio Agee–Tony to his friends, Shades to the art world–is sitting by the window at Cafe Zola. His trademark Arnette sunglasses tipped up on his head, his iPhone and iPad on the table in front of him, he’s charming the waitress and talking about his commission to do a mural. It will cover the entire back wall of the cafe and the neighboring buildings that house Grizzly Peak.
“I’m what you call up-and-coming,” says Agee, a thirty-nine-year-old Detroiter. “When I was younger, I could have been where I’m at right now, but I was into too much bullshit–drinking, partying.”
He was in middle school when a friend showed him how to create curvy “bubble” letters in spray paint, and after drawing them on paper for a few years, he started tagging buildings near his father’s store on the east side of Detroit. His father, since deceased, was a jazz saxophonist who sold incense and candles and was big in the city’s hippie counterculture–“John Sinclair was my godparent,” Agee says.
He got his first commission “doing the elevator walls in Trapper’s Alley.” With a $300 budget for supplies, he bought Krylon paint in “every color I could find,” plus a respirator to protect himself from the fumes. That led to other commissions, but his partying ways eventually got the better of him. By age thirty-two, Agee had married, had two kids, and had divorced. He knew he had to get help when he woke up one morning drunk, hopeless, and covered in cat hair in some woman’s apartment.
That brought him to Ann Arbor: “I went to Dawn Farms to get sober.” After detox, he landed a temporary job as a city garbage man, making $8 an hour. “I didn’t care. It was the city. It was awesome!” At the end of the summer, coworkers tipped him off to a permanent position. He moved up from tossing trash to driving the truck and kept it up for three and a half years.
He was living on Detroit Street across from Treasure Mart when his phone rang and a woman asked: “Is this Shades?”
“I hadn’t heard that name in four years,” says Agee.
“She started blah-blah-blahing and said, ‘I’m from the DIA, and we want you to do a show.’ I didn’t hear anything else.”
He painted a batch of new works for the DIA’s reopening gala in 2006, taking vacation time to stretch large canvases in his itty-bitty house on Detroit Street. It couldn’t have gone better. Buzz Silverman, the real estate magnate and collector, “bought one of my pieces.” After that, says Agee, “everyone started buying.”
It has been a wild ride ever since. He left his job and moved back to Detroit, but kept in touch with Ann Arbor. A year and a half ago, he met Jon Carlson of 2Mission Development, which owns Grizzly Peak and several other local restaurants, at an Eve Aronoff soul food dinner. “We’d been talking about painting that wall for fifteen years,” Carlson recalls. “Once we saw his work, we knew this was it.” Carlson and partners Chet Czaplicka and Greg Lobdell hired Agee to paint the wall through their They also volunteered to host a fund-raiser for the Ann Arbor Art Center to celebrate the mural’s unveiling on August 26 (see Events).
“Let’s go check out the wall,” Agee says. “I’m takin’ my coffee.”
He walks out Zola’s door, through the alley, to the wall that overlooks the Key Bank parking lot on Huron. Carlson calls it “the Green Monster.”
“It just means that I have a great primer,” Agee says. “Whatever’s primed on this wall lasts a long time, right? So what’s on top of it is going to last even longer.”
He’s already got the image planned out on his iPad. “My style is cartoony, Lichtenstein, with a flair of Keith Haring, and…the Snorks,” he says. “Have you ever heard of the Snorks? They were like Smurfs, but they were under water with these football heads.”
So how did Antonio Agee choose the name Shades? “I’ve got the clean version and the dirty version,” he says. “I’m going to suggest you use the clean version. I grew up smoking weed, so, you know, sunglasses. The clean version I always tell people is, I just love wearing sunglasses, which is true.
“You gotta keep an image. People don’t understand. And it’s crazy like that. Welcome to America.”
This article has been edited since its publication in the August 2010 Ann Arbor Observer. The list of sponsors has been corrected.