When St. Edward’s School handed 2004 graduate Joseph Nicholas Fisher his diploma, it left off his nickname, Sick.
Today, Sick Fisher’s middle-school moniker is worked into dozens of murals he now paints for a living, including one for the Chicago Bears football team and another for the Skokie Theatre, not far from the Chicago neighborhood where he currently lives.
Last month, Fisher, now 32, returned to his childhood home to paint a mural of sea-captain portraits at the entrance of Capt. Hiram’s, Sebastian’s landmark bar and restaurant. Owner Will Collins is a lifelong friend and fellow St. Ed’s alum.
A graduate of Florida State University, where he earned a BFA in studio art, Fisher moved to Chicago, fulfilling a life-long dream of living in a major city. While working at a diner near his apartment and building a portfolio of paintings in his free time, he saw a Craigslist ad seeking a muralist for an old patent office in Logan Square. Since then, he has transformed building after building with his distinctive cartoon-like figures and dot-and-dash backdrops.
“It’s a blast radius – I’ve painted nine buildings within an eighth of a mile. It’s been a while since I cold-called anyone. Everything at this point is word-of-mouth,” Fisher says.
“Chicago, for a large city, is also a very small community. Working in four or five different neighborhoods, it just spreads. If you do it for the right price, you will continue to get work.
“Murals are becoming a very hot commodity. If they can afford an artist and they can work with them, they will call; much like a handyman when something breaks.”
As for income remaining steady, Fisher waves off any concern. He has also taken intentional breaks to keep from “inundating the audience” and to let his creativity simmer, as he puts it.
“You’ve got to have a rest note. It creates a space in the rhythm of your output.”
So far, working hand-to-wall has not induced anxiety.
“Not at all,” he says. “It’s incredibly exciting. It’s about momentum, once you start getting enough work and enough of an audience.”
While visiting his parents in Sebastian last month, Fisher reconnected with fellow artist Jared Thomas, who arranged for him to paint a mural on the back of his downtown gallery, Raw Space. Although visitors to the gallery may never see the mural out back, the regulars at Kountry Kitchen, a diner on Old Dixie in Vero, can’t miss it – it overlooks the breakfast-and-lunch spot’s parking lot.
The mural – of a parking lot – pleased the owners of the diner as much as it did Thomas. “They loved it. They were so nice; they brought us lunch a couple of times.”
Fisher’s mark on his hometown pales in comparison with his adopted home in northwest Chicago’s historic Humboldt Park neighborhood. Over the course of nearly a decade, he has painted corner stores, a record shop, a bookstore, restaurants and bars, “one after the other,” he says.
Along with leaving his signature on buildings, he has made “deep, deep friendships” in Chicago. “It’s so great that I’m really nervous about spreading out,” says Fisher, who is planning an extended stay in Los Angeles in the coming months to broaden his base professionally.
Last year, Fisher won a commission from the Chicago Bears football team. The Bears decided to use street art in a marketing campaign and discovered Fisher through a gallery that knew his work. The campaign earned a write-up in AdWeek.
The mural, painted on a wall of a reggae club, is featured on the Bears’ website.
Fisher’s biggest mural to date – a month-long effort – was a commission from the village of Skokie, Ill., to paint a mural on the Skokie Theatre.
“Sometimes I feel like a contractor,” says Fisher, who on occasion rents an aerial lift to reach high places. “I have to get my own supplies, I have to keep my receipts, I’ve got to do my own numbers.”
Along with connections for potential commissions, he has generated an Instagram following of over 4,700 with a series of his “art drops,” random objects he has found and painted, then placed in various settings and photographed.
While he was finishing up the Capt. Hiram’s mural, he found an old satellite dish on his way to work – he commutes by bicycle, even in Chicago.
Recently, he drove to Miami with a pair of old roller blades he bought at a Goodwill and painted. But his destination – South Beach – looked “too polished, too obvious, too on-the-nose.” So he crossed the causeway and found a parking lot near the highway, where “people had already tagged up the area and there were a lot of, uh, less shiny buildings.” He situated the skates, snapped a photo and posted it to his growing Instagram.
The shot joined images from a trip last September, when he drove from San Diego to Chicago, picking up objects along the way, painting them in his hotel and “leaving them wherever I thought they made sense” to take a photo.
In San Francisco, he painted a Painted Lady – a miniature of the famous Victorian houses – and set it on a chair in front of the actual Painted Ladies. At Mount Rushmore, he left a painted Halloween mask of George W. Bush. In the Badlands, he went to a prairie dog ranch, bought a pair of prairie dog salt shakers and painted those; in the photo, they are set among the ranch’s real prairie dogs. In Milwaukee, he painted a beer tap and convinced a bar to install it. He snapped a photo of the tap, and left it there.
“I’ve been very lucky in my career and in life in general in that it’s been a very tempered progression. I’ve gone from a small town, Sebastian, to a somewhat bigger town, Tallahassee, to Chicago, which was my dream. Nothing happened so fast that I scrambled or curdled.”
Fisher’s parents, David Fisher, at one point a civil engineer for the city of Sebastian, and Susan Fisher, who worked as an administrative assistant at St. Edward’s, followed a reverse progression. After meeting in Saudi Arabia, they returned to Los Angeles and then decided to raise their new baby, Nick, in a small town, Sebastian.
It was his grandmother who suggested he go to St. Ed’s; he started there in kindergarten.
Asked if he ever felt out of place at the pricey prep school, he paused. “I certainly didn’t not fit in. I was never discouraged, put it that way.”
“If you want to be an artist, you have to make your own way,” Fisher says.