Born Antoni Roko, Tony was the first Natural American Citizen in his family, which migrated from a refugee camp in Rome. English being Roko’s second language, he immediately knew he had to rely on mannerisms and other non verbal cues to gauge the orientation and sentiment of others. At the age of 19, Roko went to work on the assembly line of Ford Motor Company. As a kid, he was always painting and drawing, a habit he took with him to the line. On his breaks, he would sketch in his notebook, sometimes making portraits of his co-workers. The union representatives and management took notice, pulled him aside, and asked if he’d like to be part of a plant beautification project to boost the workers’ morale.
Roko was put to task, painting portraits and murals on plant walls, based on suggestions from the workers. An auto plant is a hot and gritty place, not exactly ideal conditions for a mural, which is unlikely to stand up to the wear of the environment. To combat this, Roko used materials he found around the factory that had already shown their resistance to such conditions; industrial coatings, auto enamels, and scrap wood from pallets. He became the resident artist for Ford and began beautifying other plants in the Detroit area.
Although Roko has since moved from factory floors to gallery walls, he still employs many of the techniques he learned during his years painting in factories, such as working with salvaged paints and woods, while adding floor stain, acrylics, linseed oil, varnish, leftover house paint, and old windows to the list of media he works with today. He paints bold portraits of interesting subjects using bright, vivid colors.
Today, Roko is gaining recognition as one of the nation’s most innovative artists. His recent accomplishments include commissioned pieces for Lady Gaga and Jay Leno, as well as a commission for Ford’s Centennial celebration of the Assembly Line in 2013. Tony has been featured in Ford’s international “Go Further” ad campaign and is currently working with PBS on a documentary of his unique story. His work is also displayed in the permanent collection of Michigan’s Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, and he has been voted “Best Fine Artist” of Detroit by the readers of HOUR Detroit Magazine.