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The PA Bunch: A city through his eyes

  • Published
  • By Airman Chris Corso
  • 910th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

On West Federal Street in downtown Youngstown, between The Wells Building and the old State Theater, sits an empty lot filled with patches of concrete and overgrown grass. The only thing separating the street from the lot is a sturdy fence. Although the fence may seem ordinary, it is marked. Marked by a local artist with the ambition of displaying a mural that highlights all of Youngstown’s glory and brings life to the small eyesore in his city.

As a proud Mahoning Valley native, Senior Master Sgt. Bob Barko Jr., the superintendent of the 910th Airlift Wing public affairs office, has always been fascinated by the history and culture of the area, and it shows through every single one of his art pieces. From giant murals to C-130 tail flashes, Barko’s work fully embodies the spirit of Youngstown.

Having grown up in and seen all that Youngstown has to offer and how it has affected the world, the city's impact on his artwork is poignant.

“Everybody thinks of us as beat up,” said Barko, “a down-and-out, rust belt city…do you know all the things that this city has given the world?”

As a fine graphic artist for his business, Steel Town Studios, Barko takes hand-drawn illustrations, typically done with colored pencil, pen, and ink, and digitizes them, colorizing and finishing the work on the computer.

“It’s usually really nicely illustrated art with nice crisp text in a nice computer generated layout…highlighting Youngstown pop culture,” said Barko when describing his work.

A Youngstown State University graduate, Barko earned his bachelor’s degree in graphic design, with a minor in computer graphics.

“My initial thought when I finished school was I wanted to be a cartoonist. I wanted to be a comic book artist. So I pictured myself at either Marvel, DC, or even potentially Disney,” said Barko.

After graduating, Barko stayed in the area and continued to work on his art. In 1996, he created his first commercial piece: an illustration of the Youngstown skyline to coincide with the city’s bicentennial.

Shortly after 9/11, Barko reenlisted in the Ohio National Guard as a public affairs specialist. In 2006, he traded in his Army greens for Air Force blues and was stationed back home at Youngstown Air Reserve Station where he’s been serving in the public affairs office ever since.

Barko feels that being in a more creative military field has helped him improve his artwork. He often combines both worlds, as evident in his creation of a cartoon for the Airstream Almanac that has led to over 50 editions and the creation of an inflatable mascot, Winger.

“It’s kinda my holy grail of art projects, doing something for the wing,” Barko said.

Barko has a few aspirations for what to do next. His plan is to create an illustration piece for the wing consisting of photos he took while documenting an aerial spray mission during the recovery following Hurricane Harvey.

“That would be my gift back to the wing, to say ‘Here’s this painting,’” said Barko. “My ultimate hope was maybe it could end up down with the Air Force art collection at the Pentagon. That would be pretty cool,” Barko said. “I never imagined when I joined the military in '86 that I’d be rolling into what I hope to be a 32-year military career and a 22-year civil service career. Never in a million years would I have imagined that…I’ve just been very fortunate, very blessed, very humbled to be a part of this team and to just continue to tell this great, great story about the 910th and Youngstown Air Reserve Station.”

From penguin fire hydrants in Youngstown to murals hung in the homes of current and former Mahoning Valley residents around the world, Barko’s artwork continues to be a symbol of pride for those who are proud to call Youngstown home.