Artist turns Chalk Art into Business Opportunity

After graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2009, James Hartzell returned to his hometown, Atlanta, Georgia. Though he was armed with a degree in illustration, he strayed from his art, instead finding work as a college soccer coach. “I was coaching soccer more than I was creating art,” he says. Then, he discovered St. Petersburg and its vibrant arts scene. Over several years, he made multiple trips to Florida during spring and summer breaks. At first, he was drawn to attractions like the Dali Museum. Over time, though, he began connecting with area artists and visiting arts destinations off the beaten path. It was the mural honoring Bill “Woo” Correira, a collaborative effort by friends of the late artist that was painted in the alley behind the 600 Block, that confirmed what Hartzell already knew: he wanted to move to the Sunshine City and engage its arts community as a resident. “That mural was important to me,” he explains. “I don’t think that type of tribute would happen in Atlanta. It’s too cutthroat there. I knew then that I wanted to move down here.”

His 2015 move to St. Petersburg reinvigorated his art. He joined the board of the Friends of the Jack Kerouac House. He became involved with Florida Craft Art, first volunteering at events and eventually working as a mural tour guide. He also began focusing on his own art projects. About three years ago, while working on the Kerouac Mural at the Flamingo Bar, the infamous hangout of the late Beat writer who lived his final years in St. Petersburg, Hartzell needed a break. He grabbed a bite to eat at Zaytoon Grill, one of his favorite local restaurants, to clear his head. Since he frequented Zaytoon Grill often, he knew the chalkboard sign outside its storefront well. Sometimes the chalk lettering was smudged; other times, words were misspelled. Needing a break from his mural, he asked the restaurant’s owner if he could redo their sign. “I was having problems with the Kerouac Mural…and it was driving me crazy,” he explains. “So, I asked, ‘Hey, do you want me to do your chalkboard?” I felt like I couldn’t do anything right. I needed to shift projects.” From there, he began regularly designing chalkboard signs for Zaytoon Grill, and his client base also slowly grew. “Some of it was planning, some if it was happenstance,” Hartzell says, adding, “A lot of it is just going to bars and restaurants and asking for the manager. Having a card or a printout with examples of your work is important. You want to save people time and it’s great having the Instagram account and a website, but not everyone has the time to go look at it. So, I’ve started having work samples on the back of cards that show the chalk signs that I’ve done.”

His hand drawn signs, often including illustrations alongside his crisp, clean lettering, can regularly be seen at Maple Street Biscuits, Florida Craft Art and Station House St. Pete. He’s also designed signs for Mastry’s Bar & Grill, Cali Tacos, the LGBTQ Welcome Center, Black Crow Coffee and Tombolo Books, among others. It was never his intention to create a business, but it’s a good fit, he says. “It’s an opportunity for me to pay my bills and to make some more art.” The past few years have been a crash course in running an arts business, he adds. “People didn’t want to pay me at first. They wanted to barter, trade sandwiches, beer and tacos for art.”

He’s found camaraderie and mentorship with other artists doing similar work, including Leo Gomez and Sun City Signs. “We kind of help each other,” he says, sharing gigs and trading techniques. Hartzell’s confidence in his work has also grown in the three years since he inadvertently launched his sign business. “It’s been a learning process,” he says, “and it took a while to build a client base. It took a while for me to learn how to explain to businesses why my work is worthwhile for them.” In a city that’s so art-centric, well-made signs that catch the eye are important, he explains. “Signs that are legible or creative (are) part of a first impression.” He’s seen firsthand how fun, engaging signage can draw in potential customers. Since he continues to lead mural tours for Florida Craft Art, he “often lose(s) people on the way back. They stop to go into galleries and boutiques because the chalkboard signs attract the eye. (These signs) really do make a difference.”

The Creative Industry, including illustrators and graphic designers, represents 5.8% of Pinellas County businesses, according to data gathered by the County’s Economic Development Department.  Choosing to hire creatives to produce advertising, promotions and marketing has a massive impact on the entire economic and community infrastructure.

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