Florida muralist Jason Tetlak knows that while he might not be a household name the world over, more people see his art in a typical day than most of the masters whose works hang in the Louve or Museum of Modern Art. That’s because his latest venture, a bright, colorful piece spanning four walls on the top of the River Park Place Building in Tetlak’s home city of Jacksonville sits right next to the Fuller-Warren Bridge over the St. Johns River on I-95. The mural, which has quickly become a de facto “Welcome to Jacksonville,” sign is passed by an estimated 170,000 cars a day.
“It’s pretty humbling to think about,” said Tetlak. “When I was focusing on gallery shows with paint and canvas, I’d hope that a few hundred people would see my art over the course of a month. Realistically now, that happens every minute or so.”
The path toward this exposure has been a winding one for Tetlak, a former elementary school art teacher who now exclusively makes his living un-drabbing otherwise overlooked spaces.
“The mural off of I-95 was just an unsightly metal containment unit for the building’s air conditioning system before they asked me to paint it,” Tetlak recalled. “I like taking things that no one would otherwise notice and giving them a life of their own. And who knows, maybe someone passing through town going to Disney or Daytona sees it and thinks, ‘Wow, Jacksonville looks cool. We should stop here for lunch.’ I really like that aspect of doing murals – how they can have a positive impact on the surrounding community.”
It was that very realization that started Tetlak’s journey into murals in the first place. He first began bringing his unique 3D and red reveal styles off the canvas and onto the empty walls of Murray Hill, the neighborhood where he lived, which had fallen into disrepair.
“I just wanted to help. There’s so much psychology that goes into why neighborhoods rise and fall,” Tetlak said. “People want to feel safe. And if they see joy and color and creativity where there once was a peeling, water-stained blank wall, they’re more likely to have a more positive opinion of that street or block. Which means businesses are more willing to open up or relocate. And when that happens, slowly but surely a forgotten neighborhood can become dynamic again. I really think public art can be the catalyst for that kind of change. I’ve seen it happen.”
His commitment to public art has taken him all over the country in recent years, from a Community Center in Las Vegas to the Cleveland Lakefront, to a popular bar in Tuscaloosa, Tetlak has now painted dozens of high-profile murals in the USA and beyond. In March he’s headed to Austin, Texas, before a trip to South Florida – with Denver and Memphis on the horizon as well. And though he’s been featured on ESPN, been invited as a featured muralist at Art Basel in Miami, and holds the Guinness World Record for largest 3D mural, his commitment remains to his original inspiration – to help neighborhoods find life through art.
“I don’t make great tacos,” Tetlak laughed. “I’m not going to open a theater or a yoga studio. But this is what I can do. I can paint fun stuff on buildings so hopefully the people who do make good tacos want to move in.”
As the interview ended, Tetlak’s eyes quite obviously drifted toward the window, looking outside – contemplating his next undertaking. He chuckled. “I’m always looking for new projects, there’s always another wall that needs color somewhere, so if you know of one point me to it.”