With more than 342,000 followers on Instagram, blight photographer "tonydetroit" is the de facto Detroit ruin porn king of the photo-sharing site. And so long as you stroke his ego with breathless compliments, he'll keep delivering the goods.
"tonydetroit," real name Tony Majka, has been an underground hero among Instagram's wide network of amateur photogs, particularly those obsessed with Detroit's sad scenes of post-industrial decline.
Majka gained more notoriety after being extensively profiled on WDIV and was brought to the national forefront after the Associated Press highlighted him earlier this year, saying his goal is to bring "awareness to the beautiful architecture" of the city. "The followers on Instagram really motivate you to outdo yourself," he told WDIV.
Praised by news commenters and IG users for giving an "insider" view of Detroit, Majka told the AP that he's not making fun of the city by repeatedly showing stills of empty, boarded-up homes. But as we've found in a few recent Instagram threads, however, he sure doesn't have a problem at hurling insults at current and former city residents.
Take a stroll through Majka's photos and you'll see the typical Detroit ruins you've seen in documentaries and Forbes slideshows a million times before. What separates Majka from the herd is his use of color-contrasting apps and (clearly staged in some cases) juxtaposition of crumbling homes with the things left behind.
The stats about Detroit's vacant and abandoned home rate are firm and need to be addressed. But that figure — often paired with photos of the old train station or the Packard Plant — does dilute the overall image of Detroit, causing unfamiliar visitors (Majka in the AP video: "They want to make a trip to Detroit simply because of what I post.") to think it's a wild open range where no one lives at all. The city has long struggled with an image problem in national media that goes beyond your everyday "Detroit denial"; the majority of the perceptions are simply skewed to the sensational and only half-true.
When a few local IG users who stumbled on his account questioned without hostility why he doesn't include photographs of, say, Morningside, Sherwood Forest or Hubbard Farms to display to his international audience, Majka wasn't the affable "aw, shucks" guy the AP story led us to believe he was.
Instead, Majka got all butthurt and went around calling his detractors fat, ugly and undereducated. "How about I show some hideous self-portraits like you do?" he asks one IG user (who sent Jalopnik Detroit all of the screengrabs you see, but asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons). "Here's a little secret...I do show the beauty. It just takes intelligence to notice it. Something a G.E.D. doesn't give you."
The anonymous IG user, who is black, actually graduated high school and holds a degree from a private university. And while there certainly shouldn't be any shame in anyone obtaining a GED, one doesn't have to connect the dots at what Majka — who works at the same Chrysler factory that assembles the "Imported From Detroit" Chrysler 200 and mentioned working for the automaker as late as 2011 — is presuming and implying when he saw a black face raising an issue on one of his portraits.
Majka's comments and insults flying directly in the face of the pro-Detroit community boosterism sparked by the Chrysler campaign needn't be explained at any length, but it is interesting to note. That exchange is now deleted, though.
But before it disappeared, a few other IG users noted the exchange and came to defense. Majka defended himself on his own account (and subsequently deleted any hints of it, leaving only positive comments from worldwide followers), but also took a few swipes on photos on individual users' accounts.
"Ghetto. Somebody needs to lose a lot of weight," Majka comments to one former local on a photo of a smiling couple, who happen to be black as well. Pretty strong words coming from someone who boasts about living in a friendly artists' community in Brush Park, a stone's throw from the new Whole Foods.
Even more bizarre is Majka's wife, Nathali, a fellow ruin porn documentarian Instagramming using the handle _nazgul. In full "Stand By Your Man" mode, she drops even more offensive comments to users who dare to disagree with his portrayal of the city.
"I would rather repair my house than buying new car with huge rims!" Nathali says to one local user, who neither mentioned nor Instgrammed nothing of rims. "I'll give you the mattress while I'll be watching from the coutch (sic)!!!" she says to our anonymous user on a photo of said mattress in front of an empty house.
Majka has said that he met Nathali through Instagram and married her shortly after. Nathali moved to Detroit from Montreal (whose mayor was just arrested — hey, maybe that's why she loves Detroit!), but hasn't stopped speaking French.
"So smart, can you translate this without translator? I bet not. I have a nickname for the world like you, but if I use it now, it would shame the race, because they are smarter than you," she writes.
Going further down the scale between intelligent conversation and junior-high-level Internet bullying, Nathali then started using another Instagram account, "detroitusa," to bug some of Majka's critics. (In "detroitusa's" bio: "Tag "ghostly images" of Detroit or any other town #DetroitUSA to be featured! Managed by _Nazgul Sorry if I misspell sometimes, I'm French.✌"). Like other comments on the tonydetroit account, they were deleted, and any attempt at a rational exchange of thoughts was apparently met with blocking and reporting.
The only remaining inkling of any friction between Majka and the "hideous" people who don't like his photos is a recent post on Nathali's account of a burned-out shell of a home.
"I dedicate this picture to all the people who target me and my husband recently, asking to explore more Detroit and find some beauty.. Well, that is what I found. This is the real 50% of Detroit and I am not blind. #Detroit #zombieland." Majka left a few of his own replies, mostly calling out his "jealous haters."
And there's more. Majka and the Mrs. also have a fourth Instagram account, "157conspiracy," that was announced on a previous tonydetroit post this month, so that's four (at least) accounts to troll from.
Perhaps a reasonable, level-headed response from Majka and Nathali had always been too much to ask for, but knowing that all he has to do is make a call to "one of the biggest gangbangers in the city" or take out his own AK-47 to get a problem solved, social-media decorum was clearly lost a long time ago.
Thanks to the generous Instagram users for pointing this out and an additional hat-tip to everyone I bugged this weekend looking for a proper, non-Google French-Canadian translation!