A Detroit Collage: How a Graffiti Artist, Apparel Company and Nonprofit Are Helping to Keep Art in Schools

Antonio “Shades” Agee holding up a student’s artwork 

As Detroit continues to suffer from the scorching effects of bankruptcy, art—a cultural underpinning of the iconic town—remains strong, with artists, particularly urban artists, thriving amid the ashes.

And yet even as the urban art scene flourishes, the art curriculum in schools has all but smoldered out, leaving students with little or no hope of getting instruction in something they might want to do for a living.


But now some local companies and artists have made it their mission to give back to the community, and one art nonprofit is determined to see that students have an outlet.

Detroit-based custom-apparel company MyLocker and graffiti artist Antonio “Shades” Agee have partnered up with Art Road, the nonprofit seeing to ensure art instruction in Detroit public schools, to create “Inspired by Detroit: Shades,” a specially curated collection of Shades’ street-art images, which have been designed for apparel. A quarter of the sales will go directly to Art Road—which currently provides art classes to about 1,500 students in three Detroit public schools—to help further its mission.

“It’s kind of like a full circle. Here’s Shades [putting] art all over the place, here’s MyLocker putting art on garments and here’s Art Road teaching art in a depressed city that has taken art out of the curriculum because of budget cuts, and … it all kind of lined up perfectly. It made sense to put together this shop that features Shades’ art and have the proceeds benefit Art Road,” MyLocker CEO Robert Hake told The Root.


The partnership came from an organic place. MyLocker and Shades had already been working together, with Shades having been contracted to paint custom murals for the company’s headquarters in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. MyLocker’s creative director, Stephanie Battaglia, who had been volunteering at Art Road for some time, connected Shades with Art Road, and the idea of the partnership blossomed.

“Our business model is built off of art, so we hold art very close to us; we’re just selling expression of art on apparel,” Hake said. “So yes, we are deeply connected to it and plan to do our best to help students be able to have that experience in their education. So we fully support what Art Roads is doing and are going to do the best to help fuel them with their future efforts.”


Shades acknowledges what might be considered a unique situation, given his commercial success in the urban art: “I’m blessed. I’m an artist. People are paying me for what I do with a God-given talent. So there’s no problem with me giving back,” the graffiti artist said, chuckling. “Any child that gets to see anyone of success doing art … is awesome. Kids love that.”

Earlier in January, Art Road held a Shades Art Day at Detroit’s Charles Wright Academy of Arts and Science to celebrate the launch of the collection. Students got to ask questions of the artist, who couldn’t be there in person but made himself available throughout the day on the phone and via text message. The students were shown the apparel collection and were also encouraged to create their own designs.


The students even had a chance to copy one of Shade’s famous characters, Blooey, whose creation was broken down into steps for them. In front of them, sending a subliminal message, was a hoodie with “Blooey” embroidered on it.


“It’s so everyone can connect that what they’re drawing can actually be put on a garment,” Battaglia said. “Relating it to [the fact] that they can have a job in the future, they can have a job as an artist, designer, wherever their hearts take them. … Everything’s kind of simplified for them, and so the outlook is awesome.”

Carol Hofgartner, Art Road’s founder and executive director, noted that the third-grade students at Charles Wright voiced their own opinions about the opportunity.


“It is good to have our artwork on shirts because it might encourage others to do art,” one student, Summer, said.

“Any time we can show our students art in a different format[, we do so],” Hofgartner said. “There’s so many other layers for art; apparel is one of them.”


Hofgartner started Art Road about a decade ago once she realized how the art curriculum was failing in classrooms. Art, she said, had changed her own life: She grew up drawing and has had her art displayed in library showings. “For me, [art] gave me an outlet and a sense of accomplishment,” she said. “So for myself, I want to give that same sense of creativity, nurturing that creative spirit and [sense of accomplishment] in these students.”


And the outlet is proving effective. According to Hofgartner, Kimberly Davis, Charles Wright’s principal, acknowledged that attendance is up at the school on Mondays and Wednesdays, when Art Road is there.

“If things you love are cut out of school, why come [to school], if you’re not having any fun?” Hofgartner pointed out. “That’s a quantifiable. Attendance has gone up because students don’t want to miss art.”


See a “lookbook” for the collection here.

Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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