Kansas City muralist J.T. Daniels makes art that reflects and celebrates the community

Kansas City muralist J.T. Daniels created the colorful art outside Betty Rae’s Ice Cream in the River Market.
Kansas City muralist J.T. Daniels created the colorful art outside Betty Rae’s Ice Cream in the River Market.

For years, everyone told artist J.T. Daniels to “go bigger.” That’s exactly what he’s doing now.

Daniels, one of Kansas City’s most recognized and talented muralists, has mastered the modern-day art form that turns buildings, walls, and bridges into colorful canvases. From a one-of-a-kind mural inside Whole Foods Market to a recognizable rebranding project for Brisk Iced Tea, Daniels has used perseverance along with an ability to tell the stories of unique businesses to create a sense of connection in the community.

You might have seen the artist’s colorful, whimsical work on the Betty Rae’s Ice Cream shop in the River Market.

Kansas City Spaces: How did you get your start as a muralist?

J.T. Daniels: I was working nights at FedEx and going to Kansas City Kansas Community College. At the time, I was only drawing in a sketchbook because I was scared to draw anything larger than that. I finally finished my first sketchbook, front to back, with images I was really comfortable with. One night during my shift, I set them on the scanner as I planned on scanning them in and reapplying to art school. I stepped away for two minutes, and when I came back, my sketchbook was gone. I was defeated. I wanted to quit right then and there. However, one of my teachers told me to push through and try doing digital work and start over. I ended up hanging out at this coffee shop every day for the next year, recreating the sketchbook and working on my art.

One day, one of the employees suggested I hang up some of my work and sell it, and it sold really well. I realized that this setback was maybe the push I needed to start sharing my artwork with people.

KCS: Where do you find inspiration?

JTD: Usually, I start by experiencing the space in the community and talking to the people. Community projects have a lot of voices that go into them, so I keep in mind the demographics, and I design around the people. In client-based projects, I ask my contact what it is they want to see, who’s going to be interacting with it and what colors they envision for this project. From there, I go back and draw in my sketchbook and play with the photo of the space in Photoshop.

KCS: How do you get started on large murals?

JTD: I still get a little jittery, and on average, I only have three to five days to complete the project. But, in order to find my flow, the process really depends on if it’s personal or business. Initially, I plank out the whole wall and look at the line work on the side. I recognize which landmark is most important and focus on how it needs to be understood. I find anchor points in my design, such as ‘this nose’ here, or ‘this eye’ here, and I branch my work from there. Then, I add the contrasting colors and find the visual flow in order to finish the piece. It’s a lot of kinetic line work so if someone is driving in a car, or walking by, I need to think of how someone’s eyes will carry through the piece in both of these scenarios.

KCS: When you’re working in public, how do people react?

JTD: I get everything. Some people look at your skin color and the spray paint in your hand, and assume they know you. I run into fans that absolutely love it, and I run into people that are opposed to the project from the get-go, and they consistently come out every day to tell me. However, it’s always interesting because when the project is finished, they tend to be my biggest promoter.

KCS: Can you tell us more about your mural for Betty Rae’s Ice Cream?

JTD: This mural is one of my biggest works yet, standing at 18 feet tall and 30 feet wide. When approaching this project, I was simply inspired by community, ice cream, greenery and bright colors that all make up the culture of Betty Rae’s. The colors reflect the different flavors of the ice cream, and they’re pretty eccentric when it comes to flavors, so this was an important detail to highlight, because it draws people in who are looking to give them a try. The figures reflect this idea and are just fun to be around. Plus, I envisioned this as something people would want to take a picture in front of.