Helping restaurants through paintings: How one artist is supporting the industry we all love

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Tony Roko

Heavy Pour.

It feels as though we’re almost coming up for air, if you will, following the last year or more that has been consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Countless people and industries felt the impact of the hard times as the country shut down, and it seems we all watched as restaurants closed, attempted to reopen in some sense, close again and struggle.

Many did not make it, but for some in Detroit, an artist has worked hard to try to give back to help keep these eateries afloat.

“Over the last year, the restaurant industry has been shut down, with the exception of carry-outs, and so many of my loved ones (and) friends are both either proprietors in the industry or work directly in the industry,” said artist Tony Roko.

Roko and some friends created the Industry Relief Fund through art, in an attempt to give back and offset any part of the financial strain restaurants suffered during the shutdown.

“This is sort of a program to raise funds and awareness for them, as well as for art programming, which is the 501(c)(3) we have -- it’s the Art Foundation,” Roko said. “Like the restaurant workers, artists have been hit pretty hard during this, and our art programming has really just been kind of brought to a halt. Things have kind of boiled down to the essentials, and art has suffered along with the (restaurant) industry.”

Roko founded the nonprofit Art Foundation in 2017 to foster creative minds through the medium of painting. He believes every child should have access to art, and he works hard to ensure each child has the opportunity to paint and express themselves.

Roko’s love for the craft has led him into all kinds of partnerships, one of which is the relief program for restaurants.

Roko has created a series of paintings that he’s dedicated to some of his favorite restaurants and bartenders, specifically for the goal to raise funds for their establishments.

“I’m just trying to come up with sort of concepts that illustrate the hard work and devotion of the industry workers, and the challenges that they’ve had over the last year,” he said. “I was trying to imagine all these furloughed employees trying to kind of keep fresh on their chops -- learning new cocktails and recipes, and sort of just staying sharp.”

Joe Giacomino, the owner and co-executive chef of Grey Ghost Detroit, said he is humbled to be part of Roko’s program.

“The opportunity to feature some of Tony’s art, and kind of add to the ambiance or decor of the restaurant -- a little freshen up for us -- but also knowing that it gives us an opportunity to help provide some support in the restaurant industry, is super exciting,” Giacomino said.

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Each piece on display at the restaurants is an opportunity for customers to see and appreciate art, but they are also able to buy their own copy.

The art has a QR code that customers can scan. That leads the patron to the Art of Roko online store, where they can purchase a print that represents the restaurant they love.

A portion of the proceeds from each print goes directly to the restaurant it represents, and is used for their team as they see fit.

“I think it’s import to surround yourself with positive people that are trying to do positive things in the world,” Roko said. “I have an opportunity to use my art as a catalyst for that, and I don’t take that lightly, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do that.”