The outside of Ron Watters’ studio in Detroit doesn’t look like much — just a door with iron bars on a street scattered with broken glass. But through that door is Watters’ office, a white room with cement floors and walls covered in brightly colored prints and posters. He has a low, smooth voice and comes across as though he’s not trying to impress anyone. He doesn’t have to.
Through a heavy metal door, the space opens onto a warehouse containing a spattering of abstract, artsy-looking things — there’s a plastic mold of a dog, a giant Plexiglas dome with sound equipment inside of it, some sort of science experiment involving melting candy and, in Watters’ domain, gigantic screen-printing machines. They look like massive mechanical spiders with multiple arms that reach out to flat metal feet. There are boxes on the floor with T-shirts and sweatshirts spilling out of them.
This is where Watters does the printing for the business he started, One Custom City. With a mission to give opportunities to rising printers and to help nonprofits in the city, One Custom is more than just a T-shirt business.
Watters went to the University in the late ’90s, and he wasn’t surprised to find there weren’t many Black students. His childhood had prepared him for that though. He lived in Detroit with his mother and in Grosse Pointe, one of Metro Detroit’s richest suburbs, with his father. When he attended Grosse Pointe South High School, he was one of the only Black students.
“You start liking girls and then their fathers say you can’t go to dances because you’re Black,” Watters said. “At the end of the day, it rounded me.”
He pursued a dual degree in LSA’s General Studies and the School of Art & Design industrial design program. During the summer, he worked at automotive plants — not because he needed the money, but because his parents encouraged him to see what the real world was like.
Watters said many people he knew from high school didn’t get a college degree because they were making such good money in the plants, but in hindsight, he’s glad he didn’t do the same.
“My mother said, ‘This is the condition that other people have to work in,’” he said. “‘You’ve been given privilege to not have to do this.’”
Just as he was preparing to graduate, Watters said, he learned he would have to remain at the University for another semester to take required 100-level art courses. Because of this, Watters said he chose not to walk during graduation. Instead, he moved to Chicago to start his career, but he always knew he would come back to Detroit.
Watts started his first business called SCIDE Design while he was still in college, and took his business with him when he moved to Chicago. He sold high-end products, but found little success in the fading market of the early 2000s. He tried to continue SCIDE Design when he returned to Detroit, and on a whim, starting making T-shirts so his friends could afford something he was selling. That was when One Custom City began.
His first big job was for activist and author Grace Lee Boggs, who is famous for founding the Boggs School and Detroit Summer. Watters said he viewed Grace Lee Boggs as a grandmother — he was a part of one of the first groups of students to attend Detroit Summer, and grew up admiring Boggs and everything she stands for. He made Grace Lee Boggs T-shirts for her 92nd birthday with the slogan “Revolution Evolution” on them.
Today, Watters has two apprentices who work with him at One Custom City — Jovan Naves and Elijah Ford. One of the biggest benefits of working as an apprentice, Naves said, is being able to work on his own projects on top of the work he does for One Custom. His line is called Bare All Clothing.
“Since coming to the studio, it’s been nothing but positives,” Naves said. “Working here, you learn a lot about hard work, dedication. Working under Ron, I’ve learned a lot about business.”
Since his return to Detroit, Watters has focused a lot on embedding himself in the city. He has taught graphic design to some of the city’s leaders through Detroit Future Media, and he works with local artists to help produce T-shirts or other goods. His goal is to inspire and be inspired, with a greater mission to serve Detroit’s communities.
Watters participated as an artist in residency at Detroit Community High School as a part of the School of Art & Design’s Detroit Connections program.
“That’s really what my mission is,” Watters said. “I want to teach product design to kids that aren’t exposed to knowing where they can take their artistic abilities.”
The program was supposed to run for one month, with local youth who were interested in product design specifically.
Watters said the program itself was chaotic. He was put in another classroom that accommodated a robotics program. Students were pulled randomly to come to the class instead of chosen based on skill or interest.
Watters ended up staying for three and a half months. He said the experience helped him realize he wants to have a space of his own big enough to teach Detroit students that they can succeed as he did.
“Usually when they have somebody from Michigan, they don’t look like them, you know, it’s some white dude or Asian guy that will be teaching these classes,” Watters said. “So to have a Black guy from Detroit come and say, ‘Hey, I can do it here, I was living in Chicago, I was doing all this other stuff, I traveled all over the world but I picked to be in Detroit.’
In the end, Watters explained, Detroit needs something. He’s not sure what that something is or if he’s a part of it, but he said he’s sticking around to find out.