“I thought I was going to die.”
As a tropical storm rolled in on Saint Pete Beach, Florida, muralist Jeremy Nichols (@PlasticBirdie) found himself 50 feet above the ground on a metal scissor lift. The blank wall in front of him was soaked with rain running down it like a waterfall, carrying every drop of paint with it. As the wind gusted and lightning began to flash all around him, Jeremy had just one thought: “I am going to die.”
He and his friend, Blane Fontana, had been hired to paint a 250-by-75-foot mural in just seven days. Such a large project would normally take at least twice that long. To speed things up, the design was projected onto the wall and painted over, a common technique muralists use for getting a jump start. But after the client failed to provide a power source on the first day, they had to delay, cutting their already short timeframe down even further. Now approaching the end of the second day, with a storm raging and virtually no progress being made, things were only looking worse.
“We had two scissor lifts, but had to use one to protect the projector from the storm,” Jeremy recalls. “So my buddy and I were working from the same lift as fast as we could. He ended up getting trench foot because of how wet he got.” The next day, after the storm dissipated and the sun returned, Blane also got heatstroke.
One doesn’t often think of muralist as being a particularly dangerous job title, but apparently, it’s not always a walk in the park. Somehow, Jeremy and his friend managed to finish the project on schedule, even if only after inhaling a dizzying amount of paint fumes from working overtime.
It was funny—my mom actually wanted me to be a rockstar. She thought I should learn guitar and tour the world.
College-educated, street smart
Long before he painted his first mural, Jeremy discovered his creative passion in another form of street art: graffiti. “I was really into skateboarding in high school,” he says. “And graffiti and skateboarding go hand-in-hand.”
But back then, Jeremy’s mother wasn’t interested in her son becoming a painter, something any aspiring young artist can likely relate to. Except Jeremy’s mother also didn’t want him to follow the predictable, safe career path of being a doctor or lawyer. “It was funny—she actually wanted me to be a rockstar. She thought I should learn guitar and tour the world.”
She pushed Jeremy to go to art school, but when he got there he studied painting, not music. “And I hated it. It was a bunch of still lifes.” But when he had a chance to try intaglio, the process of etching copper plates for printmaking, he fell in love with it. “It was way more fun than painting fruit. As with graffiti, etching has a grittiness to it that I liked.”
Now based in Portland, Oregon, Jeremy has painted murals across the country, but most are within his home city and the surrounding area. He pulls inspiration from the natural world and his works often contain near-photorealistic representations of animals. But his techniques—involving graphic design, projected scale grids, and spray paint—are very technical. “I try to play off that juxtaposition,” he says. “I think that’s how we all live life.”
Murals bring a community together. They brighten a neighborhood. They can tell powerful stories about history or bring awareness to a cause.
Culture and community
Murals aren’t like other forms of two-dimensional art. They aren’t framed and displayed on museum walls or stored away under lock and key. And no matter how hard you try to protect a mural, its preservation is not guaranteed—even the building acting as the canvas will one day come down. But for as long as they stand, murals have one thing other paintings don’t: a function.
“They bring a community together,” Jeremy says. “They brighten a neighborhood. They can tell powerful stories about history or bring awareness to a cause.” And they do this all out in the open for anyone to see, free of charge.
They can also spark conversation and, sometimes, these conversations can’t wait for the mural to be completed. “I work with big headphones on so people don’t try to talk to me,” Jeremy says. But one day, while up on the scaffolding, he heard a person screaming “as if they were being murdered.” He took off his headphones and spun around to find a man just standing there. The man called up, “It looks nice!” and then went on his way.
Jeremy laughs. “Sometimes people just really need to let you know what they think.”
Art in all its forms
Knives have a similar ability to spark conversation, which, as a knife enthusiast himself, Jeremy knows well. “When I told my girlfriend’s mom I was doing a story with CRKT, she went off on a 30-minute tangent about Ken Onion and all of his knives that she liked.”
There is something about a well-designed knife that speaks to our curiosity. We want to look deeper and know more about it. How was it made? What story does it tell? It’s not so different from a painting in that sense.
But unlike a painting, a knife also has art in its tactility. “It has to feel good in your hand. You have to be comfortable with how it works. But it all comes down to personal preference,” Jeremy says. “I like a basic knife that’s not too heavy, not too light, is safe, and stays sharp—that’s the most important thing.”
The value of any piece of art, be it functional or not, is in its ability to enrich your life. Blades can rust, paint can fade, and walls can crumble. But whatever life throws at you, a little color and craftsmanship can go a long way to help you endure the storm.