Florida Keys Business
Sunday, March 23, 2014
The creative side of capitalism
Artist Mike Epperhart gets paid to paint -- but not always on canvas

Artist Michael Epperhart doesn't paint pictures he hopes will someday sell. In Epperhart's world of commercial art, the selling comes first, and the painting isn't always done on canvas.

A short drive around town reveals numerous examples of Epperhart's work as a mural artist, sign painter and body painter.

The Ohio native is a self-taught artist who was 3 years old and sitting in his grandmother's lap when he first learned how to coat a paintbrush with just the right amount of paint.

"She used to just do those paint-by-number pictures, but I remember her teaching me not to put too much paint on the brush when I was only 3," said Epperhart, who first came to Key West in 1999, and then returned in 2011 after a stint in Clearwater, where he discovered his talent for commercial art.

"I really became an artist in Clearwater in 2004," he said, recalling his days working for the art director of Frenchie's bars and restaurants. "We painted murals and tabletops in each of the Frenchie's locations in Clearwater. It was then that I realized this was my passion and there was money to be made in it."

When Epperhart returned to Key West in 2011, he met business owners Mike Moschel and Eric Dickstein, who were in the process of opening a Balinese furniture store on North Roosevelt Boulevard and wanted a mural painted on the side of their building.

"So, I painted two mountain scenes with a waterfall and palm trees," he said, lamenting the fact that the building and attached mural are being torn down in a few days.

But that mural gave Epperhart his professional painting start in Key West. It was soon followed by a job redoing the sign for a nearby car care company.

"I discovered my niche is hand-painting, because I don't have the large-format printers or the technology," he said. "I do it all by hand, and the signs I paint are already grandfathered in as existing signs."

In other words, he said, the business owner who commissions a sign from Epperhart must already have an existing sign or a permit for its installation.

"I'm not a sign company; I'm an art company," he said, meaning he handles the painting, but not the cutting or installation.

In addition to the signs at Southernmost Beach Rentals, Liquid 8 Pawn, Paradise Dental, Old Town Fitness, the Pilot House and the giant lettering on the front of Sloppy Joe's, Epperhart also paints stage backdrops for shows at Waterfront Playhouse. He recently recreated a series of Paul Gauguin paintings that line the living room of a home in the Casa Marina neighborhood.

From living room walls to dangling wooden signs, Epperhart's "canvas" changes once again every evening, when he sets up an air-brushing studio on the top floor of the The Bull and Whistle Bar.

The Garden of Eden rooftop bar is a clothing-optional venue where approximately 10 women each night line up to have Epperhart cover their top half with body paint.

"It's not just for Fantasy Fest," he said. "I'm up there every night, and so many women are scared before they get painted, but once we're finished they're literally transformed and they love it."

Once the women leave the Garden of Eden, of course, parts of Epperhart's work get covered by a scarf, vest or other miniscule covering.

"I'm up there most nights from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m., but am usually on call starting at noon in case there's a private party or something where people want to be painted," he said, clearly enjoying the diversity of a job that sees a day start at a pawn shop in the morning and ends at a clothing-optional bar each night.

Sign painting starts around $50 per square foot, but the price is based on the details, while body painting ranges from $45 to $300, but averages out to cost about $85 to $100, Epperhart said, again depending on what the client wants.

"It's a really cool niche I've found," he said. "And I get to drive around and see my work all over the place."

mmiles@keysnews.com

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