When most people see scrap metals and boards they think trash; but in environmental artist Tony Roko’s eyes, these are his tools. From the paints, materials and down to the pallets, Roko, who has worked for Ford for 22 years as a skilled trade’s painter, uses repurposed industrial materials to transform urban wastes into works of art.
According to Roko, it all began nearly 20 years ago, when he painted wall murals as part of a plant beautification program. The task at hand was finding materials that would hold up to the factory climate – like broken pallets that were no longer functional and reclaimed paints that would last.
“I explored the enamels that we use on machines and floors and began painting on the pallets,” he said. “I created this canvas that was mobile and used pieces from the plant to make history a part of the piece.”
Throughout his career with Ford, Roko has worked as a resident artist, creating unique isle markings, safety symbols, walkway visuals and more.
“I’m a product of Ford in this region. There’s so much automotive history here, and it began here,” said Roko. “It’s in my blood and to be able to create a piece with all these messages and rich history.”
His most recent work includes a piece for Michigan Assembly Plant made from salvaged “meaningful pieces” of materials that he found at the former Michigan Truck Plant.
“I created this autoworker out of metal and then in the backdrop was all these repurposed boards, symbolic of this new beginning. I think that was my most memorable piece for Ford,” he said.
In addition to creating artwork for Ford, Roko uses his talents to help kids in the community. Working with various organizations and schools to give back to the community and teach them the meaning of art. According to Roko, this helps fuel his career.
His next project is a Louis Armstrong installation on June 5 at Spain Elementary school in Detroit where he will teach the kids to use repurposed boards and reclaimed paints from local abandoned factories to create the art piece.
“It’s really inspiring to look at the possibilities of these materials. They have a lot of history,” said Roko. “It challenges me in so many ways. It sort of forces me to really go further because to paint on a canvas you’re completely in control but you have to give up so much control from transitioning to different textures. You have to let go of the wheel.”