A Sleepy Mural Town Wakes Up, Berlin-Based Duo “JBAK” Paints Arizona’s Largest

The wind blew violently for the second day in a row as Karl Addison finished painting his final layer. James Bullough, the other half of the Berlin-based duo “JBAK”, stood nearby and calculated the next move. After sun set, the building would be illuminated by a high resolution projector, at which point Bullough would begin his turn.

He was in a rush to secure a projector for rent by the time stores closed, or else the mural would be delayed even further. The previous day, Addison had spent up to ten minutes at a time strapped in a full body harness to a boom lift, swaying back and forth, waiting for the wind to subside.

“When you’re going this high, there’s no way to plan ahead. It’s like, ‘How many cans of paint are you going to need?’, and I say ‘I don’t fucking know,” Bullough laughs.

A six story mural is undoubtedly difficult to plan for. It’s also unprecedented in Phoenix, whose downtown revitalization has produced a thriving mural scene in recent years, but rarely receives international artists or works of this scale.

 “He pauses, then adds, ‘Well, I guess they might arrest us. This is Phoenix.'”


Brandon Barnard/Kitchen Sink Studios

Initial reactions can be garnered as people drive past during rush hour.

“We’re used to people yelling that they like the mural . . . but people have been honking their horns and yelling ‘thanks’ when they drive by. That kind of means something different, you know,” Bullough explains.

The architectural landscape is dull and overrun with a barrage of earth tones, something that Bullough is quick to acknowledge. This new addition, however, will be a pleasant change of scenery for the many drivers who frequent Thomas Road just West of Central Avenue.

Still, for a city unaccustomed to an operation of this sort, it’s mildly entertaining to watch the logistics be sorted out. In order to project the image that Bullough will then paint over, there’s a possibility that they will detour a major street in the heart of Downtown without permits.

Laughing, Bullough hypothesizes, “The worst they’re going to do is tell us to get the fuck off the road.”

He pauses, then adds, “Well, I guess they might arrest us. This is Phoenix.”

Brandon Barnard/Kitchen Sink Studios

Brandon Barnard/Kitchen Sink Studios

Both US-born, the team met in Berlin after separately relocating there. Bullough previously lived in Baltimore where he worked as a middle-school art teacher, while Addison left Seattle after growing up in Phoenix where he was involved in the hardcore do-it-yourself scene.

They’ve been painting together under the moniker JBAK for over two years, yet this is the first mural as a duo in the states. Along with few other world cities, Berlin may well be considered the movement’s epicenter and so provides more than enough work to keep them busy abroad.

The photorealistic nature of Bullough’s art lends itself to his training in oils and inspiration derived from the works of Dutch masters, and while the realism is still prevalent, the medium has shifted to aerosol.

“This has kind of been taking over for me,” he says, referring to his work with JBAK.

By contrast, Addison’s illustrative style and use of hatching techniques is attributed to his printing background. At one point, he ran a successful screen printing company in Seattle and started drawing by mimicking the way an image is created with layered prints.

“I wanted to find a way to paint by trapping colors on top of one another, much like screen printing,” he adds.

The two artists’ styles could not be more different, which is precisely why they thought it would be a good fit.

“I think we’re more successful working together than solo,” Addison says, looking at his partner.

Bullough, admittedly the more critical of the two, hesitates and answers light-heartedly that it took them a while to figure out how to effectively combine styles.

Brandon Barnard/Kitchen Sink Studios

Brandon Barnard/Kitchen Sink Studios

In 2012, Addison contacted Roosevelt Row CDC prior to making a trip to Phoenix in the hopes of securing a wall. He was directed to Chris Nieto, a major developer in the downtown area who owns a number of buildings, including one that houses Giant Coffee, located at 1st St. & McDowell Rd.

Addison asked a friend who does relief work in Haiti, and whom he says is a large source of inspiration, to send a portrait of herself for him to paint. He created a two-story mural from the photograph, titled, “Long Silent Scream”, which can still be seen on the back of the coffee house.

In advance of another visit, Addison again reach out to Nieto, who not only helped orchestrate it, but funded plane tickets, materials, and other necessities to make the project a reality. When many of Phoenix’s muralists work pro bono and for the sake of community development, it’s an encouraging sign to artists and businesses that private money is willing to be spent.

Julia Benz, a German-born artist, also accompanied the duo. Her paintings and sketches are making their way into galleries in Berlin and beyond, most recently in the Galerie Die Kunstagentin in Cologne.

Before beginning this current mural, JBAK and Benz collaborated on a wall in the Scottsdale restaurant Brat Haus, which rotates artists every few months. Benz, who will be completing her first solo mural back home in Germany soon says it was good practice in learning how to apply canvas techniques to a new surface.

“More cities are realizing that in order to have a booming tourist industry, you have to provide people with more to look at than advertisements . . .”

Brandon Barnard, Director of Video Production at Kitchen Sink Studios, was also asked if he’d like to be involved in filming the process. Barnard’s short film, “Paint Life Beautiful” is currently making rounds at film festivals after premiering in 2012. It features a back-story on artist and muralist Joseph “Sentrock” Perez, so it seemed natural that Barnard would be interested in covering JBAK’s most recent visit.

Although they couldn’t afford to compensate Kitchen Sink Studios, Barnard recognized the importance of documenting the creation of Arizona’s largest mural to date.

“I went to my boss and told him, ‘This is going to be a huge mural, a really important project and we should be covering it,’” Barnard recalls.

His boss agreed.


James Bullough/Addison Karl/JBAK

Increasingly, Phoenix as a whole is beginning to recognize the overall benefits this form of public art produces. The murals that flourish along the downtown arts district, Nieto’s personal investment, and Kitchen Sink Studio’s involvement are examples.

According to Addison, there is good reason behind this.

“More cities are realizing that in order to have a booming tourist industry, you have to provide people with more to look at than advertisements, and murals are a beautiful way to do that,” he says.

In 2008, Addison was running a screen printing company in Seattle that shipped originally-designed apparel to 40 stores worldwide in countries ranging from Australia to Japan. He owned his own home and was making a successful living from his artwork.

One year later, the recession hit and that number dropped to 15 stores, only to continue dwindling. His home foreclosed in the impact of the real estate bubble, providing him with more than enough reason to make a change.

He moved to Berlin in 2010 with 800 euros and began what he calls his “obsession years”, the years that he doesn’t dedicate to anything but one thing— his art. He also started “Idrawalot” since the move, a showroom and gallery located in Berlin.

Since beginning JBAK, both artists’ previous endeavors have taken a back seat. The more they produce, the more offers and invitations are sent their way. Last year, they attended Art Basel, an urban arts festival in Berlin featuring over 100 artists for the second year in a row.

These international festivals, while flattering, do not always pay.

“. . . I don’t think there’s enough money in [painting murals] for people to be pretentious. I’m interested to see how that’s going to change in the coming years.”

When speaking about Upfest 2013, a festival in Bristol they were invited to, Addison expresses being grateful, but says they will ultimately turn it down to attend a smaller, less prestigious altbau, or old building beautification project taking place in Macdeburg, Germany around the same time.

“If we were a DJ, they’d pay us, but because we’re painting walls, we don’t get paid,” he says, referring to Upfest.

Addison attributes this reasoning to current social and political sentiment surrounding muralists and their work. The same views, it can be inferred, also exist in Phoenix and other American cities. Berlin particularly, however, has no shortage of artists able to fulfill the demand.

When asked if this makes the artistic community in Berlin more competitive, or if artists themselves appear more pompous because of it, Addison says not necessarily so.

“Everyone’s pretty grounded. Because of Berlin’s political and cultural climate, I don’t think there’s enough money in [painting murals] for people to be pretentious. I’m interested to see how that’s going to change in the coming years.”

These sentiments are not unlike those expressed by Phoenix-based artists. While there may not be as many muralists here as in Berlin, there is still a healthy amount who successfully make a living doing it full-time.


It may be misguided to compare two cities in an effort to dissect why one prevails in murals over the other, although people like Chris Nieto and Brandon Barnard are certainly plausible explanations. The reality is that there will always be artists who create murals regardless of whether they’re sufficiently paid or not.

Six-story giants, however, aren’t typically painted by international artists for free. Berlin has many of these, while Phoenix only has one.

The difference, then, lies in which city properly compensates an artist for their services, and which one does not.

There’s no reason why Phoenix can not become a pillar of the international mural community if it understands this. Unfortunately, JBAK would have little reason to paint here if Addison didn’t call it his home town with family to visit, so the obstacle is making the city a destination in the eyes of artists.

Now, with this new addition to the changing urban landscape, they have one more reason to view it as so. It shows that when artists reach out, there is a willingness to help make Phoenix an arts destination to be measured against.

Daniel Mills is the founder and editor of Sprawlr. He can be contacted at info@sprawlr.org