Muralist’s latest work is an 85-foot-long homage to history in Georgetown.
Joey Nix had been working on a mural in a friend’s garage in Tukwila for a week and was still struggling with the female figure’s face.
“I’m battling this right now,” he said, eyeballing the canvas and glancing at his cellphone, which contained a photo of a sketch. He grabbed one of the 50 or so Belton Molotow paint cans at his feet and began spraying, first close to the piece, with fast, sure strokes. Then with switched cans, he rolled backward on a gray office chair and sprayed large swirls to create soft layers.
“It’s like aerosol art,” he said later. “When you fade colors into each other, it’s like a dust, so it’s almost perfect.”
He uses three different sizes of caps — thinner for fine lines, fatter for filling space in. “It’s mostly can control,” he said. “Just naturally knowing how to paint. You’ve got to paint with spray paint for a long time to figure it out.”
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Fumes quickly filled the garage. Usually he wears a respirator, but it gets cumbersome and cuts into his face.
The mural he was making — a 60-foot-long artwork commissioned by Hero Creative for Arete, a forthcoming affordable live/work space for artists in Kirkland — was being done in sections. The installation, a medley of surrealist machinery and hyper-realistic portraits, will be on display until January.
But normally, the 34-year-old artist works outside. As a muralist who does large-scale, commissioned works, walls are his canvas. An open wall is an invitation to paint.
As he drives around town, he’s constantly looking for blank walls. He’s searching for long walls, tall walls, walls that are in front of a freeway entrance or exit, or that can be seen from across the street. Walls with the largest possible audiences are the most coveted.
“I want a big wall where everyone’s going to see it, you know?” he said. “That comes from skateboarding. Because when you’re a skateboarder, you look at the world differently. You look at stairs as an opportunity, or a curb or a ledge or whatever … It’s the same exact thing. ‘OK, I want this wall.’ ”
With murals in Georgetown, Ballard, Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill, he’s found many walls, both inside and outside — leaving his mark outside the Comet Tavern, the Hawks Nest, and inside the Old Sage and in Bell + Whete — and as a result, thousands of people have seen Nix’s art, more than many starving artists could ever hope.
“I like how big they are and how impactful they are to all types of different people,” he said of his murals. “Public art is crazy like that because you’re kind of forced to look at it, which puts a lot of pressure on what I do. But that’s my favorite part about it, that all types of different people can appreciate it.”
His recently finished mural with painters Sean Barton and Zach Rockstad Georgetown restaurant and bar, Brass Tacks, is his magnum opus — an 85-foot-long, 18-foot-high collage of imagery meant to evoke the past and present of the iconic Seattle neighborhood. The sprawling mural features a photorealistic portrait of Princess Angeline of the Duwamish Tribe, the historic City Hall building, the Duwamish River, Mount Rainier, a steam engine and a totem pole.
“He really dug into the books and the history,” said Alex Parisi, a co-owner of Brass Tacks, who commissioned the piece. “It came easily to him to paint that stuff.”
Even so, it took Nix and his collaborators 10 weeks to complete — finishing in January 2015 — and they often painted under tarps to protect the wall during rain.
“Everyone always contacts me in the winter. ‘I want a mural.’ I’m like, ‘Where were you? It was 75 degrees last month,’ ” Nix said, amused. “ ‘Now it’s a monsoon and you want your outside painted.’ ”
The mural was also an extremely personal project. A Seattle native, he was born on Capitol Hill and grew up in Ballard, Vashon, Des Moines and Puyallup — “basically all over,” he said. Both of his parents worked at Boeing; an erupting Mount St. Helens is tattooed on his leg.
“He tends to really reach into his background and his history here and his family’s history and everything about this entire region,” Barton, who painted the Brass Tacks sign on the Georgetown mural, said of Nix’s art.
Nix took a circuitous route into art. Though he’d won an art contest on Vashon when he was a preteen, art didn’t become a focus until his early twenties. By then the ski bum and skater kid had become a house painter, and he’d started running with a small crew of artists in the early 2000s, watching and learning as he went. With the rest of the crew, he helped paint the mural on the Golden Oldies record store next to Dick’s Drive-In on Northeast 45th Street.
“I painted Kurt Cobain,” he remembered. “That was my first portrait I ever did. I’m like, ‘I can totally do this.’ ”
Over time, the crew gradually split up, and he and his painting partner, Jeff “Weirdo” Jacobson, parted ways a few years ago. (“We both are on our own path in art,” Nix said.)
But business for Nix has only increased. He is booked five months out.
His years as a house painter prepared him for his current career. From prepping walls to learning the differences between types of paintand working with people, he said, “I took the trade of house painting and brought it into mural art.”
Medium height with a stocky build and boyish looks, Nix seems to make friends easily, which comes in handy when his jobs come mostly via word-of-mouth. “I hustle my art, but I go out and I’m always in the bars and I know everyone,” he said. “I’m just in the scene.”
Indeed, one of his first customers was Marcus Charles, who owns the Crocodile Café, Belle + Whete and Local 360. Charles met Nix at his now-defunct bar The Juju on Second Avenue.
Charles hired him to paint mug shots of notorious figures in pop culture: Sid Vicious, Frank Sinatra, Tupac Shakur. Since then he’s worked with Nix on subsequent projects at the Crocodile Café and Bell + Whete.
Though Nix would prefer that people would hire him to create whatever he wants — “I’m basically a human paintbrush,” he said — he’s happy to work with both artists and clients.
“One of the nice things about Joey is he’s a collaborator,” Charles said. “Some artists want to do their thing and their thing only. He’s definitely into working with people and getting a vibe and expanding on it.”
As one of several large-scale muralists working in town, this gives him an edge. Competition is fierce, both for walls and for paying customers, including corporations that have started using murals instead of billboard ads, looking for something more eye-catching and authentic.
And Nix’s visual style is different, Parisi said. While he does many of his paintings “freestyle”— without using projection or tracing techniques, he also utilizes other types of paints and painting styles, including oil and brushes.
“That adds a lot of depth and more character than all shake spray or just oil or enamel,” Parisi said. “He’s versatile.”
That versatility extends to the subject matter as well. Though Nix’s portraits are popular, right now he says he enjoys painting machinery (like the engines of Gas Works Park) as much as people. “I find beauty in lifeless things like that … I like bringing life to it by painting,” he said.
Meanwhile, Nix will be looking for the next wall to bring to life.