Parliamo (Italian) – verb
- To talk, to speak with.
- A series in which we sit down with, interview, and get to know innovators and trendsetters from the world of FIAT, art, music, fashion, and design. This is your chance to listen in on those conversations you’ve always dreamed of, and a chance to catch a glimpse of that intersection where passion and CREATIVITY meet.
Antonio “Shades” Agee, a Detroiter since birth and active artist and community member of the Detroit area, started painting the streets when graffiti was nowhere to be found in the city. His love of the art took him around the U.S. and abroad to hone his skills while learning to produce “legal” graffiti. Since the early 90′s, he has racked up a vast collection of impressive work in custom murals and canvases for clients from film studios to automakers, including a Detroit/Torino electronic music festival, as well as several FIAT events. With pieces shown at big and small galleries, commissioned all over town and permanent Michigan State University building installations, he’s not just emerging, he has transcended.
Making street art legal and gainful takes savvy, and soul. His street credit and business acumen has made him one of the original graffiti artists in Detroit, giving him the edge to forefront the respect and admiration this archetype earns. He had a blast zipping around Italy in the FIAT 500 but most days he escapes the paint fumes by cruising the streets of Detroit on his long board, listening to Jazz. If he weren’t so nice and cool, we’d think this father of two had his own agenda. Turns out he does, his calendar is booked. But he’ll still make time to chat about his loves, Detroit and graffiti.
How did you get into the graffiti thing and turn your art into a business?
I’ve been doing it ever since I was like 15. So you’ve got this whole bracket of me being a vandal and then going into galleries and then making it into a business. I started doing shows but then I wanted to do something that was a little more lasting. I wanted to take what I was putting on the walls and in the streets and put it in people’s homes and businesses. It’s been a nice little travel but it started out hard, always wanting to be doing something. The ball started rolling about 10 years ago and people started commissioning my work. I didn’t have an idea of where I was going with it. I just knew I wanted to do it. I guess it’s one of those things where you realize it later because if you’re having fun it’s not a job.
How has it been changing from street graffiti to commissioned work?
When you do stuff on your own and you’re out there on the street, or even when I did shows for galleries, you do your own thing. When you do stuff for other people, you do what they like. It was kind of a battle. When I was doing stuff for clients, I had to start thinking about business and what is acceptable to the client and ask them what they like. That was kind of a rough little turn. It’s not just your own thing that you put your name on anymore. That’s the change from being a graf artist to being a businessman. But I still do my own work, too.
Where is your studio?
Downtown Detroit, Brooklyn. Corktown. Nice little neighborhood. We’ve always been here and now things are happening in this desolate area and it’s more populated at night. Some big name bands have been discovered across the street and with more playing every night. It’s this last little part of Detroit that has consistency with industry and business.
Where did you paint that FIAT car?
They had me come in at the Detroit Auto Show charity preview and I painted it live there while people were walking around. Then I was scheduled to be there for two extra days and I kept adding to it and became part of the show. The people liked it because, you know, I’m urban art. I’m part of the society that people grew up in. They’re like, whoa, there’s a graffiti guy painting a Cinquecento. But I like FIAT, I started with them in Italy. I spent some time there, in Torino. I was working on a graf project there and I got a call from the FIAT campaign. So by then I was already familiar with the brand.
What is The Movement Detroit/Torino?
It’s the techno fest. I’ve been painting there for the past 10 years in Detroit then they wanted me to come over to The Movement in Torino. It was huge. It’s every Halloween. Now I’m there every year with them. It’s become a second home to me.
What is it like to go from Detroit then go do work in Italy?
It’s bizarre. You’re talking to a kid from Detroit. I don’t know the Italian language or culture. You have no idea what their idea is. It’s much different than America. Italy is very word of mouth and things happen instantly. But it’s fun and they throw a challenge at you then give you less than 48 hrs. to get it done. And I like that. It’s fun.
You pick it up via the vibe. Most of the people there, you know how they feel. There’s certain ways you speak to people. You don’t say Ciao to everyone. I’m really into the people more than the ancient art and architecture. You pick up the vibe and hang out with the graf heads there. They have much love for Detroit. They deal with the car stuff like us and they have this jazz thing and the art thing and their very familiar with Detroiters and they welcome us.
What are your thoughts on the revival and compact design of the 500?
Well, the 500 is a very popular car anyway. When they came out with a new design of it I didn’t know what to think at first. I liked it once I drove it. The design itself, it’s like a little pill. But when you drive it, you understand that design. You can get around New York like never before in that thing. In a metropolis, it’s a great car. And parking… it’s something that should’ve been introduced here a long time ago. People were saying I want that car. It’s good on gas and you can park that thing anywhere. It’s parallel-parallel-park that Cinquecento in between. I drove one in New York when I did some stuff for FIAT at the event there. That was wild.
To see more of Shade’s work and find out about his shows, visit Shade’s website here.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2011 edition of FIAT Source for iPad.