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LOCAL-ish: Meet artist Jimmy Breen

Jenee Priebe

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St. Petersburg is brimming with local creatives. We love local: artists, restaurants, businesses, dive bars. We have an entire festival celebrating all things local. But in a boundless digital world, what does it really mean to be local? This three-part series aims to explore that question while highlighting St. Petersburg-based artists whose work has propelled them beyond the boundaries of our city limits. These artists proudly call St. Pete home while simultaneously acquiring an impressive portfolio of work outside the ‘Burg. 

Part one of LOCAL-ish features St. Petersburg-based artist Jimmy Breen. He’s a designer, illustrator, muralist and successful creative entrepreneur. Breen is known locally as a graduate of USF St. Pete’s Graphic Arts program, a co-owner of former design studio Wax & Hive, a 2019 SHINE Festival muralist and an active member of the local chapter of Creative Mornings.

The artist is also a salaried employee with Warner Music Group, the third largest recording company in the world. He’s a Senior Illustrator responsible for creating artwork for musicians like the Grateful Dead, Michael Bublé, Green Day, Bruno Mars and countless others. Recently, Breen also created artwork for His Holiness the Dalai Lama for the annual Tibet House fundraiser with renowned composer Philip Glass.  He contributed to Cardi B.’s merch line and is currently working on two big projects for Willie Nelson.

With mural work being the exception, the rest of Breen’s success is currently happening outside of St. Pete. We sat down for a conversation (shortened and edited for clarity) about his work and why he insists on staying in St. Pete.

How and when did you end up in St. Pete?

Jimmy Breen: In 2011, I was doing freelance illustration work for a lot of people – Warner Music, Live Nation, Atlantic Records. I had good relationships with people which led to a lot of design work. But I’d never been to school for art or any kind of illustration. I was having imposter syndrome. So, I looked up USF St. Pete and realized they had a pretty cool faculty. The program seemed legit, especially for the cost of going there so I decided to enroll in the design program. That’s what brought me here. When I first moved, I lived downtown on the other side of the block from where the Birchwood is now. My rent was $600 a month. That’s crazy to think about. 

You were involved with Warner Music before you moved to St. Petersburg. How did you get that job?

It was around 2003, I had been making art and screen-printing T-shirts for different local bands. Fueled By Ramen (a small independent record label founded in Gainesville) had just put out Fall Out Boy’s “Take This To Your Grave” and I was like, how do I work with them? One day I was reading Alternative Press Magazine and I see at the bottom of the Fall Out Boy ad is the address for Fueled by Ramen Records. Their address was on Hillsborough Avenue and I had just moved to Hillsborough Avenue. The next morning, I walk into their office and say, “I know this sounds odd, I’m a big fan of the kind of music you guys are putting out. I saw that your address was right down the road from my house and I just had to meet you. Here’s all the stuff I know how to do, can I do anything for you?” They said they just moved there to do merchandise production and needed someone to help run it. Suddenly, I was in charge of production for all the Fueled By Ramen merch. I was only at that job for a year or so. Years later, Fueled By Ramen was acquired by Atlantic Records and from there, the people that I knew and had great relationships with were suddenly working in good positions at Atlantic Records, which is part of Warner Music. So then, I went from having the ability to print some T-shirts for Fueled by Ramen, to being able to create artwork for lots of different Warner artists.

For people that might not know much about this industry, can you break it down and help us connect with what your day-to-day looks like?

In the morning, I will work on whatever personal projects I have going on. Today that’s Willie stuff and some murals, one with Twisted Indian and one for Brick Street Farms. I work with Warner out of the L.A. office, so later today I have some Grateful Dead projects and some stuff for this wild guy named Oliver Tree. He’s a human meme and he is hilarious. If I’m not dead tired tonight I’ll do some more personal work. It’s a grind, but it is fun.

Tell me about the Dalai Lama poster.

The Dalai Lama poster will go down as one of the best projects of my life because I don’t know how to top that. He’s not a person you can work for! The opportunity came through a long time friend in the music industry who works for Mandolin, a live concert streaming service. The Tibet House benefit concert is something the Dalai Lama does every year and they needed some art for it. This year they made it virtual due to Covid and that changed everything.

To me it’s a continual process of being amazed at how you can make a living with art. Because there are so many ways to make art.

I used to work as a freelancer for Warner Music, but in 2017 I made too much money. I was making more money than their art director so they had to hire me. Now, I’m a salaried employee. The whole merch art team is only like seven people total. That small team makes millions of dollars of business every year for our artists.

I think it’s really a disservice to paint artists in a bad light. Being a “starving artist” – that whole trope is untrue. As an artist, you have the ability to take nothing, to take scraps, a sheet of paper, a piece of graphite and you can create something you can sell for $10,000. If someone is telling you that you can’t do it, or saying it’s a bad profession or it’s too difficult, you should question why they’re telling you that. Because there is so much money to be made as an artist. As long as you can unlock your mind from all the things that we’ve all been taught, you can do anything as an artist – and make unlimited amounts of money.

What’s your plan moving forward? What does the future look like for you?

I’m really happy with what I’m doing. This is probably the coolest job I could ask for. And at the same time, I want to do more. Before the Dalai Lama thing happened, I was feeling kind of stale. It sounds crazy because I’m doing all this stuff but I’ve conquered every mountain I can conquer as far as this thing goes, as far as music art goes. I’ve worked for everybody that’s alive. I feel so fulfilled from the work I’ve done to this point. And honestly, that’s why I’ve become so excited about murals. It’s very therapeutic. It’s fun to try to look at a wall in this way. What am I going to bring to this spot? What can I add to make people feel better about this wall? I really want to bring people joy. Also, the process of painting is very Zen.

Really, what I want to do next is figure out the thing that’s going to help me retire. Murals will probably only be a thing I can do for 10 year or so before I’ll be too tired. What I want to do is create ways where my art is its own income stream, kind of like what Chad Mize has done.

What does it mean to you to be considered a local artist when your work extends beyond St. Pete?

Before I started doing anything here locally, I always felt isolated. I felt like I didn’t know anybody or anything going on. I didn’t have any sense of community when it came to being a creative. The best thing about being a local artist in St. Pete is that everyone here is universally accepted. People here want to help each other. They understand, for the most part, that there’s enough to go around for all of us. The artists that are doing the same type of work, same types of jobs, are cooperating with each other. We’re helping one another out, lending supplies, giving each other tips. I don’t know where else you can find that on such a grand scale. It’s not just some people, it’s most people here. St. Pete is like a big small town.

I went out to L.A. once when I first got hired with Warner, but I didn’t want to leave St. Pete and I made that clear. I said “Look man, I’m in love with St. Pete, I don’t want to move to L.A. I don’t want to move to New York and I don’t want to move to Nashville.” In fact, I told them they should open an office in St. Pete!

It’s really valuable to be an artist here. I think in another 10 years, to say you’ve been an artist in St. Pete is going to mean something to people all over the country. Maybe the world.

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