For most, graffiti is writing on a wall, caught in glimpses through car windows on buildings and train cars. For Antonio “Shades” Agee, graffiti is art, and it’s a way of life. The Detroit born and bred artist has been sharing his vision with the world since early childhood.
“Growing up, every kid is interested in art. It’s a way to communicate all the wild thoughts in your imagination before knowing all the words you’d need to use in describing them,” Agee said.
He was first introduced to graffiti art in his middle school days, when a classmate from New York City shared exactly what graffiti art was—and showed him how it was done. Agee began painting walls in Downtown Detroit in the 80s and expanded his work to the canvas years later. He chose to take the drab, abandoned buildings around him and brighten them up with vibrant colors and animated cartoons.
“I chose graffiti simply because I love the immediacy of the art form,” Agee said, explaining that he can create an entire mural in four or five hours, which would take a painter with brushes and oils much longer.
Agee initially found graffiti alluring because he loved to draw and paint, and he thought the colors of murals and tags were amazing. Today, Agee works mainly on canvas and walls, as well as sneakers, and even people.
“It’s more like graffiti pursued me before I even knew it,” Agee said. “I’m a product of hip-hop, of the city, and the energy and chaos of both is very clearly transcribed into my work. Everything in my life has brought me to graffiti and it just seems natural.”
Throughout his career, Agee has created murals for clients including Universal Studios, the Detroit Institute of Arts and Michigan State University.
Like many artists, Agee has a few standard practices. He always sketches out his ideas beforehand, and freehands all of his pieces. He also finds inspiration from fellow artists Salvador Dali and Roy Lichtenstein, both of whom used surreal, cartoon-like visuals in their pieces.
“I am a big kid at heart and love cartoons, so the images are totally on my wave length,” Agee said.
In addition to his inspirations, Agee’s artwork is also influenced by each period of his life.
“I can look at any one of my paintings (on my website) and immediately remember what I was going through at the time, just based on the colors or the composition alone,” Agee said. “My life has never behaved on a logical temporal plane. Neither has my art.”
“Shades” is very appreciative of the city in which he grew up, and has no plans on leaving anytime soon. “I have a lot of love for this city, more than you know. If it wasn’t for my upbringing and surroundings, I wouldn’t be who I am today,” Agee said.
Which is precisely why he believes that Detroit is an ideal city for aspiring artists.
“Detroit is the spot. It’s an enigma in the sense that anything is possible here. I feel it’s one of the few cities left where your work is judged on merit and you actually have to hustle and represent yourself. It’s more than just a gimmick on a t-shirt. Detroit is boot camp for your confidence, but when you come out, you’re champion status,” Agee said.
Agee also notes that Detroit offers amazing history, aesthetic value and visual qualities, all of which offer opportunities to artists. As for aspiring artists, staying true to oneself is the key to success.
“Hustle. Pay your dues. Recognize that you have a lot to learn, but be proud enough of your work to hold your ground,” Agee said.
Currently, Agee is heading to Purdue University for a live performance piece onstage with renowned poet Jessica Care Moore, and he is also involved with D.I.F.F.A. as a curator for an upcoming charity auction.
“Life as anybody other than an artist is hard to imagine at this point,” Agee said.
For more information on “Shades,” to view his artwork, or to commission a piece, visit www.shadesdet.com.