Building a graffiti business, letter by letter

Philadelphia favorite son and Grammy Award-winner Questlove has published “Creative Quest,” a collection of inspirational stories and lessons about living one’s best creative life. In this spirit, Speak Easy has asked Philadelphia artists to share stories of their own creative quests.

I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. I was very interested in graffiti and graffiti culture in high school, and that’s definitely when lettering became my focus. I would draw graffiti and mess around with traditional wildstyle lettering, all in a sketchbook, never trying to paint it.

At Rutgers University, I studied marine science and ecology, but I was pulled toward graffiti in a stronger way. I saw it everywhere. A few friends were painting, so we all formed a crew. I was painting graffiti weekly and working a full-time job pertaining to my major. That was right around 2006.

After graduating from college, I searched desperately for a cool job that fit my degree. I worked a handful of steppingstone jobs, hoping to land a career in a marine research field or with Fish & Wildlife.

These were my busiest graffiti years. My friends and I had a pretty strict routine of painting freights three times a week, and we stuck to that up until recently. These are definitely the years that built my foundation and my reputation for being a “straight letter” guy in the national freight graffiti community. For me and my friends, it was more of an excuse to meet up a few times a week, catch up on things, vent about our jobs, enjoy some bar food, and get some work done.

After painting for years, it just becomes a routine, less of an adrenaline rush and more of an escape from stress. Even during these years, I had a checklist of techniques I wanted to use (cracked, slimy, ripped, upside-down, bevel, chrome), probably a bit of foreshadowing things to come.

While I was working a crappy job and painting graffiti a handful of nights a week, I was also juggling occasional mural jobs. In 2008, while painting a legal wall in Camden, I was asked by a roller rink owner to paint the entire rink floor in a Las Vegas theme. I had never done any murals before. I had no idea how to price it out, what supplies I needed, or how long it would take. This definitely planted the seed for my future business. I realized I could quickly make a week’s pay in only a few hours.

By that time, I was already using Glossblack as a business name, originally with the intention of selling handmade fonts, but that quickly faded away as mural business took over. I promoted myself on Craigslist routinely, and mostly I directed my skills toward day cares and other cartoony jobs.

Fast forward to 2015. A client gave me full artistic freedom on an empty corner lot. I painted a large ‘PHILLY’ in an illustrative chrome effect, as well as a vibrant letter-based fence surrounding it, right in the heart of Fishtown. After that, things really started to snowball, and I was painting murals almost weekly, as well as picking up some major corporate clients.

In 2016, everything fell into place. My wife and I were newlyweds, expecting our first child. I emptied my savings account and bought a home. I bought my wife a much-needed new car. And with all of these new financial burdens, I decided to quit my job. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

For the longest time, I had wanted to be able to support myself and my family with my art, but I never really imagined how it was possible. I think I always relied on the idea that I would work for someone, maybe painting a movie set or learning faux finish. Looking back, I feel like it was smacking me in the face for years: Spray painting large-scale work was my specific strength. My lettering, and the way I approach structure and texture, is unique to me. That’s the avenue I should be pursuing; that’s what will become my trademark.

Today, I feel so fortunate to be where I am. Some days I say to my wife, “I’m glad I’m not cleaning a fish tank right now” or “I’m glad I’m not sitting in traffic right now” — which are both things I was doing daily only two years ago. It still feels a little weird to have this new freedom, and I want to make the most of it.

As much fun as it is to work on my own art, I actually enjoy the pressure and challenges of working with a client and their brand. It’s a great honor to be trusted to that degree, that a major company is willing to collaborate or put its image in my hands. It’s also a great reminder that I’m doing something right.

Raised in the Philadelphia area, Jimmy “Glossblack” is a nationally recognized American graffiti writer.

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