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Backstory: Artist Scott Nurkin transforms blank walls into colorful works of art

Scott Nurkin painted this pop art display in the stairwell entry to Kings Barcade in downtown Raleigh.
Scott Nurkin painted this pop art display in the stairwell entry to Kings Barcade in downtown Raleigh. kbettis@newsobserver.com

During Scott Nurkin’s senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his art professor asked the class how many students still wanted to pursue a full-time career as an artist. Nurkin was the only one to raise his hand.

True to those dreams, that’s what Nurkin became, opening The Mural Shop, a Chapel Hill-based company that allows him to design, paint and restore large-scale illustrations around the state and country in places such as restaurants, bars, schools and the zoos.

Triangle residents have likely stumbled upon his art without knowing it – he has signed the walls of the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, Kings Barcade, the Lincoln Theatre and Garland restaurant in downtown Raleigh.

His work includes portraits of famous North Carolina musicians at the former Pepper’s Pizza in Chapel Hill, the lettering at Wall Poems of Charlotte and the yellow, brown and blue logo of mountains and water on the signage for Deep River Brewing Co. in Clayton.

In 2000, Nurkin got his start as an apprentice for Michael Brown, a well-known Triangle mural artist who encouraged him to go out on his own.

Nurkin, who’s also the drummer for Raleigh-based rock band Birds of Avalon, realized he could earn money painting murals while traveling with the group in 2003. One job could bring in up to $500.

“The first five years, everyone got a tremendous gift due to my naivete,” Nurkin said. “I wasn’t doing numbers, and I didn’t put as much value in it as I should have.”

During those first few years, he knocked on doors and made cold calls to muster up business. He made business cards and left them on car windshields.

Over the past couple of years, Nurkin’s hard work started paying off, and he began to see an increase in the quality of projects and the number of customers seeking his work.

In 2012, he opened a small studio in Chapel Hill, where he does administrative work and paints panel murals.

He works alone. Like many artists, he said his style is unique, and he doesn’t have time to train others. He also likes the independence, and not having to hire and fire.

Nurkin often has to compete with independent or graffiti artists who can become famous from one original painting, but he steers clear of areas saturated with other artists.

Nurkin acknowledges the riskiness of his business. “Murals aren’t a necessity,” he said. “But we are growing toward a culture of interest in handmade things. A handmade sign is better quality. It speaks to the environment.”

This month, the N.C. Zoo commissioned Nurkin to paint an arctic landscape of mountains and ice that tell the tale of melting ice caps and endangered polar bears at the new exhibit that’s expected to open later this year. It is one of his favorite projects to date.

“It’s just me and a polar bear chilling,” he said of the job.

Nurkin says that almost half of his clients don’t know what they want him to paint. He offers ideas, feels out their style and interests and encourages them to research a specific artist. Even with commissioned paintings, he is free to create with his own style and vision, he said.

One of his latest contracts was a historical horse and buggy scene for the town of Carthage. He has been commissioned all the way to California, and his next project will take him to Virginia.

His weirdest job? A toss-up between aliens in a laser tag arena and too-frequent commissions to paint men’s bathrooms.

“I’m thinking about stopping. The inevitability of someone marking it up is pretty high,” he said.

Nurkin’s rates range from $500 to $100,000, depending on what the client wants. A smaller mural with intricate detail might cost the same as a simpler, larger mural, he said.

“I have definitely wanted to give up plenty of times, wondering what I’m doing when I can’t make ends meet,” Nurkin said. “But I’m happy, and I love what I do.”

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