About five years ago, Tony Majka was walking through his Brush Park neighborhood, taking pictures of the Detroit architecture as was his routine. Looking for a filter to enhance the shot, he stumbled on something called Instagram. He downloaded the app, messed around with it, posted his first picture and “Tony Detroit” was born.
Fast forward to today. Tony Detroit has more than 385,000 followers. His photographs of the city he loves have attracted fans from around the globe as well as in the worlds of sports, entertainment and travel. He’s a rock star on Instagram, earning the coveted “Suggested User” title before the rest of us even knew what that was. His Detroit photographs have earned him accolades and insults – and he embraces it all. That’s part of being a Detroiter; you take a punch as give as you give one.
Lately, though, Tony has become an ambassador of sorts for the city he loves. People who follow him on Instagram or other social media not only appreciate his eye for Detroit life, but they want him to share his images and talent. To that end, he recently traveled to Israel as part of a tourism drive for that country. He met with actress Debbie Mazer for her upcoming television show, where they shot a segment with Tony doing his personal tour of Detroit.
Now, Tony has partnered with 1800 Tequila as part of the company’s “Visionaries” campaign. The advertising campaign blends social media with 15 visually stunning outdoor billboards that feature Tony’s photographs around the city. The first was unveiled this month at East Eight Mile and Charleston streets. The idea, 1800 Tequila said, was to both promote its brand but also salute Detroit, its toughness and its perseverance.
1800 Tequila calls what Tony and other artist, photographers, writers and more are doing a “creative renaissance.” Given Detroit’s deep respect for creativity and innovation, 1800 Tequila wanted to highlight the city’s architecture, its product (natch) and Tony’s skills as a native photographer.
My first question for Tony, who was kind enough to shake off some jet lag and take media calls all well, was something like this: Why set yourself up to serve as the representative for Detroit’s creative spirit? Others, it must be said, have done it and suffered the consequences of so much attention – good and bad. To me, it seemed intimidating to have your work represent the spirit of a city so complex and so polarizing.
But for Tony, photography is a family tradition. Creating things is part of who he is as a person and as part of the artistic Majka tribe. It is about honoring Detroit – the good, the bad and the less-than-pretty spots. But he also understands that Detroit is ever changing, and that a camera is the ideal way to document such moments. Tony believes in showing the “before,” the city’s troubled (re: ruins) side. But he also wants to highlight the “after,” the beauty, the rehab, the people who stayed, the places that have always existed even before this new crowd rolled into town.
“Photography is in my family,” Tony explained. “My grandfather had a darkroom; he was an artist. I grew up watching him, and knowing how to develop film was always in the back of my head.”
In college, Tony took a few photography classes and hung out at a local camera shop. But he couldn’t afford the impressive equipment that tends to go with a professional photographer. Upon graduation, he pondered going into communications, perhaps radio. But a job at Chrysler was tempting, and its regular hours and comfortable pay won the day. A Detroiter turning down a car job? Right.
He worked. He moved back to Detroit. He set up a life in Brush Park, hanging out with his two neighbors (which included weatherman Andrew Humphey, who occasionally hit Tony up for early-morning rides into the TV station when his car wouldn’t start).
It was around this time when Tony started on Instagram. He got to know the site’s creators, and he met other Detroiters and photographers along the way. They have supported one another collectively as a group, spreading the word about their work and getting each other jobs when they could. It was about what makes Detroit so great – people honoring one another and their craft.
“I love the architecture here,” Tony says. “Some naysayers believe I only show negativity (about Detroit). But that’s not really me. … I feel lucky enough to be able to show the before and after pictures. Some 80 percent of the buildings I used to post are no longer there or they are being renovated.”
Recently, Tony was able to buy his first “real” camera. His success on Instagram gave him the funding and the inspiration to upgrade from his iPhone. Yet he’ll always be that guy, stopping to snap a moment, a great sunset, an amazing building, a special Detroit location. He’s an insider in the best sense of that word. He is a Detroit documentarian, through and though.
So when all of those billboard with his pictures go up around the city, you might see Tony sitting in front of one them, just staring. That’s because the reality of this moment hasn’t sunk in yet – that someone else believes so strongly in his vision – HIS Detroit – that they want to show it off to the world. But that’s what makes Tony so Detroit. He’s a local guy.
“It’s about the community,” Tony says. “It’s edgy. It’s tough. It’s smart and strong. The people here are so strong. And they have so much pride. It’s obvious. You see it everywhere you go.”