Brick, Mortar, Masterpiece: Muralist Kacy Jackson Is Turning Louisville Vibrant, One Wall At A Time

Mar 16, 2022 at 12:44 pm
Kacy Jackson has decorated Louisville with over 50 murals.
Kacy Jackson has decorated Louisville with over 50 murals. Photos by Carolyn Brown

A knowing face stares out over the city, surrounded and backlit by vivid, impossible-to-miss color, analyzing the people who live and work around it with a watchful gaze. The Louisville skyline rises behind it, glinting in the sunlight and framing it between its lofty heights.

Those knowing eyes sit beneath the iconic unibrow of Frida Kahlo, painted on a mural watching over Market Street from a perch on the side of Guacamole Modern Mexican, with black and blue butterflies circling her trademark floral headpiece.

But that description also belongs to the man who brought the famous Mexican artist to life, who worked on top of two scissor lifts for a week straight to paint her, braving snow and sleet, who has decorated Louisville with more than 50 other murals and counting, someone for whom the entire city is a canvas-to-be lying in wait, the man who was chosen to create this year’s Kentucky Derby Festival poster.

That man is Kacy Jackson.

City Of Murals

Jackson, a 30-year-old, Louisville-born muralist, has painted so many walls and canvases he’s lost count of the exact total. There’s a high likelihood that you’ve seen one of Jackson’s murals in and around the city. They’re everywhere, indoors and out: the rainbow lion at Mellwood Art Center, the beaming face of inaugural poet Amanda Gorman on Barrett Avenue, Muhammad Ali holding up three fingers on Preston Street in Smoketown.

Jackson — who primarily works locally, but also has murals as far away as Tampa, Miami and Phoenix, among other cities — has had a passion for art his entire life.

“There’s 24 hours in a day; make some use of your time. If this is what you want to do, just do it,” he told LEO.

It’s advice that Jackson hands out and follows himself.

A few years ago, he shipped out a painting to “The Ellen Show” in Los Angeles, hoping Ellen DeGeneres would give him some career-boosting publicity. He flew out to California to ensure it arrived at the studio as planned. His plans were derailed when the painting he had made of Ellen arrived at the wrong location and later fell off of a truck onto a five-lane interstate.

Heavily damaged from being run over on the highway, the painting was recovered from the asphalt, and Jackson hand-delivered the artwork to Ellen himself.

To Jackson, the experience showed that if he could do that, he could do anything.

“That’s how serious I was about the dream; that’s how passionate I was about the art,” said Jackson. “As an artist, I did something crazy. I gotta make the master moves in order to be recognized. To this day, with that same ambition, same dedication and passion, that’s where I’m at now. I don’t care how long it takes me to do a mural, I’m gonna do it, but it never takes me long because I’m so passionate about it. I’ll only work from sunup to sundown on a mural every day, just to get it done.”

Arguably his most famous mural is one that multiple clients have cited as their initial draw to Jackson and his work: “The Unified Race,” a powerful, rainbow-hued mural of two running horses that covers a side of the multi-story NuLu Marketplace building. 

Jackson completed the work in April 2021. It represents, his website says, “??a reflection of everyone coming together in the race of life during the most challenging times and will serve as a visual remedy and breath of fresh air.” 

It’s a reference to the pandemic, of course, but Jackson is lucky: because he mostly works outdoors or from his own house and is a “one-man army,” the pandemic passed him by relatively smoothly. (“What pandemic?” he joked.) Although he saw so many businesses, especially restaurants, bear the brunt of closures and staffing shortages, being able to continue working during the pandemic led to one of the biggest commissions of his career: the Derby Festival’s 2022 poster.

Jennifer Morgan, the Kentucky Derby Festival’s merchandising manager, worked closely with Jackson throughout the poster design process. Morgan acts more or less as a talent scout for artists. (She’s developed a knack for it over the years; Jackson’s poster was the 25th she’s overseen.) She looks for artists who are getting attention in the community and who are in the public eye; typically, she has her potential choices for a poster artist narrowed down by August of the preceding year. She’s also responsible for making sure that the final Festival poster design can translate across all types of merch, including t-shirts, glassware and postcards. 

With that, Jackson’s work, which is bright, colorful and often geometric, was a logical choice. As she put it: “If you live in Louisville and you don’t know who Kacy is, you should just hold on and you’ll know in a minute.”

Morgan describes Jackson as humble and quiet, a “very appreciative person” who is “all business” and doesn’t open up easily, unlike other artists. Still, she said, Jackson is accommodating and responsive to feedback but also “very quick to do what he wants to do.”

Funnily enough, Jackson and the Kentucky Derby Festival went back and forth on the final design of this year’s poster. Every other poster design before this one, Morgan said, has always been “pegasus, pegasus, pegasus,” or at least “pegasus and other elements.”

The first version Jackson submitted followed that more typical pattern, but it didn’t feel right.

Morgan asked Jackson what the Derby Festival actually meant to him. He replied that it’s about the diversity and different cultures of Louisville coming together to celebrate something special.

With that in mind, he gave them a new poster: a skyline of the city, with the pegasus taking the place of the “e” in “Festival.” The new design was full of his trademark rainbow hues and geometric shapes, but the Festival’s name and the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge were lit in gold. As the city shines brightest during Derby season, so should the artwork showing it off to the world.

“I think he nailed it,” said Morgan. “That’s what the Festival represents.”

click to enlarge The 2022 Kentucky Derby Festival Poster created by Kacy Jackson.
The 2022 Kentucky Derby Festival Poster created by Kacy Jackson.

‘A Walking Business Card’

Even if you’ve already seen one of Jackson’s murals, there’s a chance you’ve also seen the man himself at work. On a cold February day, Jackson met me at Feast BBQ, across the street from his mural at Guacamole. He was easy to spot against the drab brick-cement-and-tar landscape around the restaurant: the yellow aerosol-paint-covered jacket, sky blue hoodie and blue paint-covered pants immediately gave away a dedicated artist.

“I’m a walking business card,” he told me. “This look has gotten me commissions.”

He walked me through the look: the spray paint on his sleeves came from testing out new cans of paint. It makes more sense to spray a new can onto clothing than onto a wall, he said, because having to fix wet paint, even by painting over it, can mess up a mural. Still, he’s even got a new Ralph Lauren jacket that he’s looking to “mess up” — well, “not really mess up, but definitely add some color to it.”

Jackson pointed out something special about wearing a yellow jacket: it reminded him of Muhammad Ali, a frequent subject in Jackson’s murals, who both famously said, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and whose Jackson-designed mural at Ali’s alma mater, Central High School, features a yellow jacket, the school’s mascot. Ali’s impact on Louisville — and the world — was, of course, beyond measure.

“That’s the way I’m kind of moving out here as an artist,” Jackson said. “I want to make sure people feel some way when they see the art.”

It was actually Muhammad Ali who gave Jackson the biggest turning point in his career before the Derby Festival — albeit posthumously.

In June 2016, national and international media — New York Magazine, SportsCenter, a member of the White House Press Photographers Association and even a Norwegian news outlet, amongst others — captured him painting Muhammad Ali outside the Yum! Center as Ali’s memorial continued inside. Jackson says he was the only person outside the Yum! Center not hawking Ali-themed merchandise that day, and the manager of the Yum! Center even came out to shake his hand and compliment his work.

The flurry of interviews he did gave him the drive to work toward more press, more interviews, more accomplishments. In 2020, the Biden campaign spotlit one of his Ali murals — albeit not Jackson himself — in their “America the Beautiful” video.

click to enlarge Kacy Jackson paints a mural, “La Catrina,” at Gustavo’s Mexican Grill on Hurstbourne Road on March 2.
Kacy Jackson paints a mural, “La Catrina,” at Gustavo’s Mexican Grill on Hurstbourne Road on March 2.

Hometown Hero

In some ways, it makes sense that a muralist would be the one whose work represents Louisville’s biggest event, given how much Louisville loves larger-than-life art in the first place — the statue of David, the oversized Louisville Slugger, “The Thinker” — not to mention the black and white multi-story Hometown Heroes posters you see all over town. Many of the posters have faded from years of sun exposure, and the poster series itself ended in 2017 anyway — the same year Jackson officially founded his brand and business, The Art of Kacy. His work carries a sense of newness, an energy and vibrancy — which, of course, is exactly what the city’s needed over the last two years.

Jackson is humble about his work, but not in a self-deprecating way; he knows when to be proud of his art. He once referred to himself (jokingly) as a modern-day Picasso.

Still, he understands the role that murals play for an individual business and in the community. He doesn’t do donations as often as he used to, but he doesn’t turn commissions down either; when a client reaches out but can’t pay much (or anything), he won’t instantly turn them away, but he’ll “stretch out the timeline,” putting paid work first. Such is the reality of being a working artist, but he knows what his work means to the people who commission him — and to the city as a whole.

“Murals, not only are they beautiful, but they also take the value of the building up,” he said. “You put a great piece of art on there — like, say, for instance, if Michelangelo or Picasso painted something on the building, that building is not just a regular building. It’s not just brick and mortar no more; it’s brick and mortar and a painting — a masterpiece.”

From The Beginning 

Jackson’s artistic career technically began when he was 5 years old, but not with art lessons — with, instead, homework assignments, crayons and doodles born of boredom.

His mom and dad didn’t live together, so Jackson and his two brothers bounced between their parents’ houses in Shawnee and Park Hill. He graduated from Southern High School in Okolona, where an exposure to a wide variety of cultures was both enriching and educational; he taught himself Spanish, partly by osmosis from being around Cuban-Americans and partly from “trial and error” and “dissecting the lyrics” of Latin music. To this day, although he admits he’s not a fluent speaker, he can still read and understand Spanish as well as English.

Jackson says that one of his biggest skills, despite a lack of formal mural-making training, is his ability to observe, to absorb, to soak up knowledge like a sponge. That, too, began in his childhood.

Jackson attributes his love of art and his career success in part to watching his parents pursue their passions for art in their own ways. His dad, Kevin “Too Too” Jackson, passed away in 2008. When Jackson was growing up, his father was a dialysis patient who spent hours coloring in coloring books, bringing the outlines to life, due to his limited mobility. Jackson draws a connection now between watching his dad do that and his own eventual career.

The difference, though, Jackson says, is that he was lucky enough to parlay his own work into a much larger scale, one that brings him both “money and a legacy.”

When he told me about that, he mused on the fickle relationship between fame and talent.

His mom, Jeannette Williams, has been an entrepreneur since Jackson was a child; she imparted her business skills onto Kacy as much as she gave him her passion for art. She ran a nail salon and did cleaning work, which Jackson helped with when he was 12 years old; he told LEO, “I seen her be her own boss and thought, you know what? I want to do this.”

To Jackson, who describes himself as an artist and a businessman, honing his entrepreneurship has always been as important to him as mastering the craft of his work. Lots of artists often get short-changed because they undervalue themselves, whereas “the businessman knows how much the artist is worth, but the artist doesn’t know. So the artist might think, ‘OK, I’ll just do this for a dollar, ‘cause I love it.’” He has done commissions for less than their financial value, but only because he knew that the bigger benefit — developing his portfolio — would help his business grow.

Williams’ work gave Jackson some financial support for his (limited) time at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied fashion design. He switched over to graphic design due to the time constraints of holding down a part-time job as a fashion design student.

That, in part, is why he chose to spend only about a year in the four-year-program: the realities of being an 18-year-old artist were too harsh, and he felt it wasn’t worth it to go into $89,000 dollars of debt for skills he could learn on YouTube. He left college in 2011 and came back to Louisville shortly after.

During and after college, a myriad of survival jobs in Chicago and Louisville kept him buoyed, but not thriving. Between when he left college and his current career started, he had stints at Jewel-Osco, Abel Construction, Walmart, Malone Staffing and call centers, plus some time working as a tattoo artist.

All of his jobs gave Jackson skills he still uses; even now, he calls them less “survival jobs” than “training for my business.” Working at call centers gave him the ability to be comfortable speaking to strangers and to do the clerical work he uses in his business — doing taxes, filling out invoices and the like — and one of the call centers got him what he calls his first paid commission as a “real” artist, a foam board painting of a coworker’s son eating a hamburger. (The price: $100.)

There was another long-lasting perk to one of Jackson’s jobs: he met his now-wife in 2011 while working inventory at Walmart. She, then a single mother with three children, worked at the in-store Subway. When he stopped by for a meal one day, she flirted with him. He was surprised by her forwardness, but it paid off: they got married just eight months later. Jackson says he fell in love with her kids, who, compared to himself as a child, were “angels,” and he jokes that stepping into the role of a father gave him “the perfect opportunity to be a hero.”

Jackson and his wife will celebrate their 10th anniversary this year, and their teenagers will be 13, 15 and 16 after their spring birthdays.

The whole family took a trip to New York City recently; one of Jackson’s Louisville clients has an office inside the World Trade Center and invited him to meet there when he was in the city. Jackson said he enjoyed the trip, but he wouldn’t relocate to New York: “I feel like I wouldn’t live there unless I had to live there. It’s a place just to visit.”

That goes for any other big city, too: “To appreciate the big city, you have to really live in a small city, ‘cause then when you live there, it’s not big anymore, it’s just [a] regular old city.”

So what keeps him in Louisville?

“It’s just home, you know,” he said. “It’s just best to live here in Louisville. It’s home, it’s fun, it’s growing. We are doing bigger and better things every day.”

click to enlarge Jackson works on “La Catrina.”
Jackson works on “La Catrina.”

Another Day, Another Mural 

A few weeks later, it was a bright, sunny, 75-degree day, and Jackson was working outside of another Mexican restaurant: Gustavo’s on Hurstbourne, which replaced what used to be Romano's Macaroni Grill.

It was too warm for his regular painting jacket, but his outfit was still serving as his business card, albeit more literally; he had on a pale tan shirt that read “The Art of Kacy” in light-colored letters, right above his website URL. He also sported a matching hat, paint-stained white jeans, plus earbuds and a gas mask.

He was working on a striking mural, “La Catrina,” which he had to finish up by sunset. I was there to take photos — and only to do so, as it turned out my initial hopes to interview him were foiled by the significant muffling caused by his gas mask.

Still, I was immediately taken by how bold it was, how full of detail. Like the Frida Kahlo mural, it bears the striking face of a woman, but surrounded by the swirling lines and patterns of traditional Mexican art rather than flowers or butterflies.

Jackson didn’t finish by sunset; it took two more days than he’d intended because the restaurant had to remove some trees that were blocking his way, but no problem: he never rushes his work.

In fact, he can even “see” it before it starts. As a photographer can “see” a good shot without a camera, Jackson can see a mural where there isn’t one. We were sitting outside of Akasha Brewing Co., where picnic tables were flecked with occasional drops of paint, when I asked him about that ability. He pointed to the wall of a nearby building, a blank white two-story canvas-in-waiting.

“The whole time I’m doing this [interview], I’m thinking, that building right there looks pretty good; I could use that little section right there on the bottom to do something,” he said.

The wall on the side of Guacamole opposite the Frida Kahlo mural is blank at the moment, too, but Jackson knows what he’d put there, if the owners agreed to it: a pattern of Dia de los Muertos sugar skulls or flowers to match Frida Kahlo’s headpiece, or perhaps alebrije wings to match the ones inside the restaurant, the kind that people line up to take Instagram photos in front of. 

He of all people knows how much Instagram is a boon for artists; his account, @theartofkacy, currently has 2,000 followers and counting, including big Louisville institutions like 21c Hotel and the Speed Art Museum. As he told LEO in early 2020, “I always look for something that’s going to be engaging. Well, engaging for the community and also real impactful. But I always also think about, how would this look on Instagram as well, because at the end of the day, that’s what it kind of boils down to. Your portfolio nowadays is your Instagram account.”

When Jackson first started out, much of the work he had to do was literal door-knocking. Murals can’t be bought at a gallery, so clients have to seek him out and commission his works — or else they’re graffiti. 

But as the Kacy Jackson brand has become more established, advertising himself has become significantly easier.

“90% of my business [now] is people reaching out to me,” he said. “In the earlier stages, it was more like 30%. The other 70% was me reaching out to people, giving donations, and just trying to build a name for myself.” 

He compared it to McDonald’s, which has become so ubiquitous and has already done so much advertising that new publicity isn’t really necessary anymore; everyone already knows what McDonald’s is.

But it’s not always the same for an up-and-coming artist.

“After a time, you got to continue to push,” he said, “because if you don’t continue to push, then people kind of forget about you.”

Not that Jackson is really at any risk of being forgotten, though. The Derby Festival might be one of his biggest clients, one he foresees will continue to lead to even more commissions, but any artist would want a client portfolio like his, which includes the Muhammad Ali Center, Zoo Miami and some upcoming big names he asked me not to name yet. 

Clients and compatriots of Jackson’s offered praise for him, or happy recognition at the very least. Representatives from Fund for the Arts, Revelry Gallery, and Mellwood Art Center were all eager to praise Jackson’s talent over email.

Rick Moir, one of the co-owners of Guacamole Modern Mexican, was making cocktails for a media preview when I asked him about what it had been like to work with Jackson on the Frida Kahlo mural. 

Jackson, he said, was a “very, very talented individual” who was “super reliable, showed up, told us exactly what he was gonna do.”

“The partners here are pretty creative people,” Moir continued. “We usually have the idea in our head, and he was able to really bring it to life. There’s been so many people that commented that he was out there working, myself included. I pulled up one day, it was snowing, sleeting, he’s on a lift up there, just going to town.” Jackson told Moir he was nervous about making the mural atop a new, unfinished roof, but he was still confident that the final result would turn out well.

Moir said that Jackson told him, “‘It’s gonna turn out exactly how you want it.’ Sure enough, it turned out more than we wanted.”

Dozens of people, Moir said, have shown up to the restaurant solely to take photos of the mural, sometimes with drones — and those photos tend to include the skyline. He attributed a boost in foot traffic to the mural. 

Stacey Yates, Louisville Tourism vice president of marketing communications, told LEO “We love Kacy’s work.”

She said that murals could contribute to two of the top 10 most important factors to why visitors choose Louisville as a destination — “cultural attractions” and “overall ambiance and atmosphere.” Beyond that, her office knows that murals “are like billboards for tourism when visitors post them on their social media accounts. Every little bit of marketing helps in that way.” 

Jackson finished the Guacamole commission in one week in December, working from sunrise to sunset, months before the restaurant was ready for the public. It was a big commission, to be sure — one that would precede even bigger and better opportunities.

That, ultimately, is what being the Derby Festival’s 2022 poster artist means to him: an unbeatable  opportunity to showcase the best of Louisville and himself.

“I’m building my legacy, and I’m really building my brand. More important than the bourbon and the horse racing is me actually creating a piece that I say, ‘Hey, this is what [the Derby Festival] is about; this is what the city offers.’ And I want to have a foot in all those conversations. That’s what it’s all about.”

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