Painting the town: Bryan Todd is the man behind those murals

Shelby Park Mural

Shelby Park Mural. Photo by Kyle Ware

Pass though the Higlands or NuLu and you’ve seen his work—these huge murals of crisp design and typography adorning multi-storied facades in two of Louisville’s hubs of eclecticism. And he’s fast becoming a component of Louisville’s visual identity.

“I never thought about it that way,” says artist Bryan Todd. I’ve thrown him a little with the suggestion.

“I do know it’s humbling to have these things out there and have them well-received. But you say that and it reminds me that I had some people tell me recently that as flights come into Louisville that they can see the Falls City mural [on Market Street in Nulu] from the air and that’s so crazy to me.”

I caught him just before he skipped town for the Midwest UX Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He’s attending with Forest Giant, the Louisville firm where he works as an interactive designer. The trip may give him the opportunity to see for himself.|

For someone creating such larger-than-life work about town, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more down-to-earth guy than Todd, who along with painter Kirby Stafford of Danville, just completed a third mural in town, this one in Shelby Park.

“Every time Kirby starts putting paint on the brick, I get butterflies in my stomach. I’m beyond nervous. I’m thinking about the people walking and driving by, the people in the neighborhood. For me, it’s a tribute to everything going on in that area and I’m very sensitive to that.”

“I remember thinking when we finished that Highlands mural. ‘It’s so big. If they don’t like it—well, that’s a big thing not to like.

He describes that first mural as something he had no business doing.

Le Petomane's Captain Ka-Blam! embodies "Weird, Independent, and Proud" in the Highlands.

Le Petomane’s Captain Ka-Blam! embodies “Weird, Independent, and Proud” in the Highlands.

“They put out this call for submissions and I saw this big, beautiful black brick wall, it’s a gorgeous building, in a spot that’s close to the heart—growing up and going just down the street to ear X-tacy. I gotta give this a shot.”

The Highlands mural also marks his first official collaboration with Stafford, who had executed a previous work of Todd’s in Danville.

“He’s this incredible guy—he builds hot rods and has been lettering all his life,” says Todd.

“The amazing thing is that he just works with a print of my design, a yardstick and some chalk. And he just does it. I manage the project, the planning and all of that, but once it’s “go time?” I turn it all over to him. And he does it fast. And he does it perfectly. It’s unreal.”

He’s not kidding about fast. When Insider Louisville initially sought to do this piece, it was Monday of this week and the first can of paint had just been opened. By the time I sat across from Bryan early Wednesday morning in Clifton, the mural had long been completed.

“Yes! He started at 9 a.m. on Monday and he sent me a text on Tuesday at 2 saying he was done,” says Todd. “I try to document the process, but he’s so fast, I hardly have anything for this one.”

Kirby Stafford with his trusty chalk and yardstick. Photo courtesy:

Kirby Stafford with his trusty chalk and yardstick. Photo courtesy:

Todd’s process is likely what he’s asked about most frequently. People want to know about what kind of projector is used or about his computer set-up. The murals, while representing only one element of his work, have garnered a lot of attention, particularly in the digital age. Most are surprised to learn as much is done by hand as by machine.

While every project is unique, he begins with the specific needs of each one—be it magazine cover, an ad for Subaru, or mural; his work is appearing just about everywhere—and continues to refine and break it down to its purest element, sketching and scanning over and over.

“I’m thinking about what needs to be communicated, the feeling. What does it need to say?”

He can do as many as 50, sometimes 100 iterations until he arrives at something that feels right. That has that clarity of vision. That purity of meaning.

The more bold and straightforward your statement, the more precise and refined you must be to make that statement.

And it doesn’t take long to see the art in the man and the man in the art.

Ask him about the murals, for instance, and he’ll describe them as simple. A few colors and a few design elements, but the result of a lot of research and decisions.

He focuses only on what’s important.

Ask him about his life, and he’ll tell you he has time for two things: work and family, crediting his wife and kids as inspiration.

He focuses only on what’s important.

That kind of intense focus is what led Todd to become a designer in the first place. At the age of 24, he decided this is what he wanted to do, and then went about the business of doing.

He took advantage of every opportunity that came his way. He took a job at a sign shop and simultaneously hustled to do freelance work. “My goal every day was to learn. To take every opportunity that came to me. And each one of those led to something else.”

“But that’s the big thing,” he says. “I’ve given this my all. All those Friday and Saturday nights my friends would invite me out at Nach Bar or wherever, and I’m home, just trying to make the mouse and pen tool work in Adobe Illustrator.”

He’s still just using the mouse, by the way. He has no fancy tablets or touch display.

And that clarity of vision shows up again in his work ethic.

“You show up everyday.  You start out, and your stuff isn’t that good. In fact, it’s horrible. But you keep going because you have this bigger picture that you know you can aspire to and you know you want to do. It doesn’t mater what that is. I can listen to someone that loves what they’re doing all day. I can relate to that.”

I tell him that he’s describing much of the success literature of the day, that Malcolm Gladwell and Stephen Covey would be proud.

“I feel like a grandpa. It’s old school. You get up, you go to work, and just do the thing, you know?”

I should say that at this point in our interview, he apologizes for talking too much about himself. I reassure him that this is why we’re here and note that every time he mentions a job, an opportunity, even a meeting, he has someone he acknowledges or thanks.

Falls City Lofts, before and after

Falls City Lofts, before and after. Photos courtesy:

I ask him to reflect on working in Louisville.

“My philosophy? Think globally; act locally.”

He says, “And I love it here. My roots are here. I love being part of Forest Giant—they’re doing such amazing work on things that didn’t even exist five years ago. And my freelance work. I’m able to do what I love here.”

“And that’s what I’d say to any creative person, whether it’s music, writing, whatever. Louisville’s ready for it. It’s a unique city and you can try a lot of things and people are receptive and open to it. It’s a great town.”

For more Bryan Todd, visit his site.

His work will also be part of Troublesome Houses: An Art Exhibition Inspired By The Music Of Will Oldham, opening November 1st and running through December 14 at PUBLIC Gallery (131 W. Main Street).

And if you’re headed out to Sojourn’s Fall Festival this weekend, his piece will be the 80-foot wall in the parking lot. And if you can’t make it, take a drive down Shelby sometime. That wall’s not going anywhere.

If we’re lucky, Bryan Todd isn’t either.

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