East side artist Tony Whlgn was commissioned by Neiman Marcus for a mural project inside its Somerset Collection store. (BridgeDetroit photo by Orlando Bailey)

Antonio Robinson painted his first street mural before he even graduated from high school.

Now, the 31-year-old born and raised eastsider, known in the city as “Tony Whlgn,” is fielding calls from companies like Bedrock and the Detroit Pistons, institutions like the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the College for Creative Studies, and nonprofits like Eastside Community Network and the ACLU of Michigan.   

Perhaps the most unexpected call for the Detroit School of Arts graduate came from Neiman Marcus, one of the foremost luxury department stores in the world. The store’s “Leading with Love” campaign, in partnership with the creative platform Artprenuer, commissioned Whlgn to create an installation inside the Somerset Collection store in Troy.

Tony Whlgn’s mural inside Somerset Collection in Troy. (BridgeDetroit photo by Orlando Bailey)

He finished the project in the span of a few weeks, working late into the night after business hours. The mural, visible in the men’s store near the escalators, will be there permanently. Other pieces from Whlgn will be on display at the store in the gallery for a year and window displays will be up until August.

Whlgn’s works indubitably capture Black creativity and curiosity. He’s done work in the music industry for artists in and outside the city such as Dej Loaf, the Doughboyz Cashout, Joey Bada$$ and for labels like Cinematic Music Group and The Smokers Club. He had prominent murals along Woodward and Mack avenues and inside high schools including Southeastern, King and Marcus Garvey Academy. He also founded The Whlgn, a collective that anchors a slate of creative entrepreneurs in education, exploration and opportunity. 

BridgeDetroit Engagement Director Orlando Bailey recently caught up with Whlgn to discuss the Neiman Marcus mural, the inspiration behind the project and his work.

Editor’s note: This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Orlando Bailey: How does an artist from the east side of Detroit collaborate with Neiman Marcus for a major new installation like this one?

Tony Whlgn: The first thing that we have to do is step outside of our comfort zone. I had to experience things outside of Detroit to understand what my purpose was, to really find a passion for painting on walls took a lot of understanding and trials and tribulations but I think being able to get a partnership like this really requires a person to be themselves. This entire collaboration, the entire creative process, the entire journey has been them allowing me to really have creative control. To create what it is that I want to see on the walls, what people want to see on the walls, what consumers want to see on the walls and really just embody not only what Neiman Marcus is, but Tony Whlgn.

The mural, inspired by the theme “Lead With Love,” is inside the Neiman Marcus store at Somerset Collection in Troy. (BridgeDetroit photo by Orlando Bailey)

OB: Tell us a little bit about what’s on the wall.

TW: The theme for this mural was “Lead With Love.” You can see it in my artwork, a lot of the imagery used to create the messaging, some of that is inspired from Detroit. Some sports references, we have some Neiman Marcus references, we have some Troy references, we have some Detroit references, and we have some community references. But I think the overall pictorial message I wanted to get across was the idea that people fall in love in spaces like this. I can remember being young, being in the food court, seeing a girl that I was interested in and being nervous having that conversation. Because you never know where things like that take you, especially in places like the mall. And it’s a part of something that not only is natural in my upbringing but is a part of my story. I can remember times when my mom, my grandma, and other families would go to the mall. (Our mall was on the east side). To really be out here, where dreams and desires come true, is a big thing. 

OB: We see a manifestation of what’s in your head on the walls. Talk about that process, and getting what’s in your head out.

TW: Time. I would say a lot of these pictorial images were built up over time, practicing different techniques, things that I wanted to not only introduce in my style, but to introduce as Tony. But also something that can be collaborative. A lot of my most recent collaborations – Shinola, Vans, etc. – have included artwork that has been collaborative. I like to, not only within my paintings, but in my design process and creative process, work with people to find a medium. Whatever that medium is that I want to envision with my style and whatever they want embodied in it. And then finding that sweet center in the middle but staying true to myself and staying true to what that message is.

Whlgn said his piece was inspired by sports, Neiman Marcus, Detroit and community. (BridgeDetroit photo by Orlando Bailey)

OB: Here we are in a place where we (Black men and women) were not always welcome and you are leaving an indelible imprint here. Talk about what that’s important for you, why it’s important for everybody, not only in the city but everybody who comes here to see you in this work, Detroit and neighborhoods and the little Black boys and girls you represent every day.

TW: Being a Detroiter and being from the east side, stepping on this side of the mall when I was younger wasn’t forbidden but it was always uncomfortable. To be a grown man, to be welcome on this side of the mall, with not only being introduced with my artwork, but allowing others to come to this side of the mall to see it, we know this is the “rich side.” So, for little Black boys and girls to come on this side and see that they have something that represents not only them but others, you feel me, is powerful and it’s impactful. As I’m painting this, I can see kids looking up and being like, ‘wow, that’s cool.’ And then I can only imagine 20 years in the future them being like, ‘I remember that time I saw a guy painting on the walls at Neiman Marcus. I can do that, too.’ Just like they saw Obama become president. 

OB: Talk about knocking down that fear barrier. A lot of people have this same level of talent, but they are scared. What do you say to them?

TW: I want to start by saying, I am afraid of heights. But the passion and position that I’ve put myself in when doing something like this allows me to step over it and overcome my fear. I am a very introverted person. Being in front of crowds makes me nervous, but knowing that I’m doing something that I love and enjoy helps me cross that line. When I know I’ve committed to something like this and I can’t turn back, when I get up there it’s like ‘what’s the worst that can happen.’ If this is where I make my plummet to the end, I’d rather do it doing what it is that I love doing as opposed to being afraid of ever getting up there and not trying it at all. 

Orlando Bailey is Engagement Director for BridgeDetroit. He is the former deputy director for Eastside Community Network in Detroit, is co-host of the Authentically Detroit podcast, and is the host at...

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