Tony Stafki poses before his mural at Cedarvale Lanes in Eagan, Minn., with dimensions of approximately 100 feet long by 12 feet high.

 

Larger Than Life

Tony Stafki Enjoys the Thrill of Creating Murals in the Twin Cities

Tony's murals range from whimsically cartoonish to photorealistic, as seen in this 11-by-16 depiction of the king of beasts for Lion's Gym.

By Diane Franklin

You’ve heard the saying “Go big or go home”? Muralist Tony Stafki definitely goes big, creating large-scale murals that make a huge impact in homes and businesses throughout the Twin Cities area.

Tony has done murals for many businesses, private homes and public spaces, including an amazing community-backed tunnel project for the city of Shakopee, Minn. (See related article: Art is All Around.) He has done whimsical, cartoonish type murals for younger children as well as photorealistic murals of jungle animals and sea creatures. He’s recreated Bilbo Baggins’ “Hobbit Hole,” the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, and depicted larger-than-life automobiles as if they were crashing through the walls of their homeowners’ garages.

His murals have enlivened childcare centers, dentist and healthcare facilities, retail stores, restaurants, bars, bowling alleys—he’s even created an authentic-looking hockey rink for a child’s playroom. Additionally, Tony is a skilled faux finisher, whose sophisticated Venetian plasters appear in a variety of residential and commercial settings, including the Eddie Bauer storefront at the Mall of America.

Tony replicated the look of a hockey room for a child's playroom.

 

A Versatile Style

One of the reasons for Tony’s success is his versatility, with his murals ranging from cartoonish to ultra-realistic. His work has appeal for adults and children alike. “I definitely like doing kids’ murals, just because the kids appreciate it so much,” he says. “In a kids’ room, I can do the simple cartoon-like murals, but I find that a lot of kids really prefer the 3D realistic look.”

Tony takes the child’s age into consideration to determine just how realistic the style should be. “I might be doing a shark mural for a kid who is maybe 10 years old, and instead of the bubbly, cartoony sharks that are more for a 3-year-old, I’ll do a realistic coral-reef shark room that would be essentially the same if I was asked to do it for an adult’s man cave. The kids absolutely love it.”

One little caution, though, is that the kids might be frightened if the shark looks too realistic. “They like that style, as long as it’s not too scary,” Tony concedes. “You have to be careful not to have some huge shark right next to where the kid is sleeping.”

One of Tony’s most realistic murals turned a kids’ playroom into an authentic-looking hockey rink. This started out with a simple request from the homeowner to put a few team logos into the space because her son liked hockey. “I said to her, ‘We can make it look like a real hockey rink with the boards, seats, glass, and so on.’ I did some sketches and renderings, and she loved the idea,” he reports. “So, the project went from doing a couple stripes and logos to something much bigger, and the kid was just blown away. He opened the door to his playroom, and it was like walking onto a hockey rink.”

A surprising specialty for Tony has been the creation of large murals for bowling alleys, with dimensions of approximately 100 feet long by 12 feet high. For two of the bowling alleys, the concept was the same: Create two murals on either side of the bowling lanes—one depicting the city of Minneapolis and the other depicting St. Paul. “They were the same idea, but two different styles,” Tony reports. “One of the projects was a night scene, while they other was a cartoony, colorful scene created with blacklight paint, so when you turn on the blacklight, it glows. I’ve been doing a bowling alley for the past three summers. The owners all know each other, so they recommend me. I hope to be doing another one this summer.”

The realism of this underwater mural is a style that appeals to children and adults alike.

 

A Life-Long Talent

Tony’s affinity for art started when he was a young boy growing up in the Twin Cities. “You know what it’s like when you’re an artist,” he says. “By the time you’re 5 years old, you pretty much know you can draw. Not every kid can do it, but for some reason, you can. I look at it as a God-given talent.”

All throughout high school and into college, Tony honed his talents. “I was doing a lot of landscape paintings in oil paints, just for fun, and I also painted Christmas ornaments to make some money over the holidays.”

In college, Tony spent two years as a teaching assistant for a pottery class. “I was in the class with my two cousins, who went on to full-time careers in art as well,” he recalls. “It was the first week of class, and we didn’t even know how to throw a pot, but we were carving and painting on our pieces and making them look cool. The teacher saw we had artistic talent and hired us on the spot.”

Tony’s initial idea for a career was to go into interior design, but after graduating with an associate’s degree, he took a job offer in the computer field. “That’s where I learned to do websites and other computer-related stuff,” he says. “But then after about three years, our entire department got abruptly laid off.”

This was prior to the recession of 2008 when the real estate market was very robust. “My brother was painting for a home residential painting company, the home market was going crazy, and they needed all the help they could get,” Tony recalls. “So, I went into regular house painting for a while, which was really good, because it taught me how to tape, how to prep, and about paint in general.”

On one of his painting projects, Tony saw a muralist working in the house. “It was like, just all of a sudden, a bell went off in my head. I thought, ‘Wait a minute. That’s what I should be doing.’ ”

With the permission of his boss, Tony started leaving business cards for custom painting at the homes of their clients. “I started getting a little trickle of work from that, enough to realize that I could do this on my own. So that’s what I’ve been doing for about the last nine years, and every year’s been better than the year before as far as the workload is concerned.”

As a business owner, Tony put his three years of computer experience to good use. “It helped me build my own website and do the kind of office work that’s involved in running a business, so it all pieced together very well,” Tony says.

Tony's ability to combine faux finishes with murals, as in this wine cellar project, helps distinguish him from other artists.

 

A Simple Design Started It All

The first paid mural that Tony completed was for a playroom; it consisted of a simple oak tree with a squirrel on one of the branches. “It was a very simple design,” he says. “What was really neat was that it was a couple-million dollar home, and I was painting on a Saturday, when the homeowners were moving in. And here they were in a beautiful new mansion with all of these amazing features, and the first thing they were telling people as they came into the house was ‘Go check out the mural that’s being painted upstairs.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, this is real cool to have people excited about that.’ It made me realize that people really appreciate painted art on the wall.”

Even though Tony has gone on to create much more elaborate murals, he commemorates his very first mural by using an oak tree as his company logo. “That was where it all started, with that simple oak tree mural,” he says.

As he expanded his business, Tony decided to expand his services to include faux finishing. His techniques encompass everything from simple ragging and sponging to elaborate faux marble and faux tiles. One of his specialties is Venetian plaster, and one of his most popular offerings is to do a Venetian plaster as a framing device for his murals. “It provides a more contemporary, almost modern-art type of design,” he says.

The fact that Tony can do both murals and faux finishes is a major plus for his business. “A lot of muralists don’t do the Venetian plasters, and a lot of faux finishers don’t do murals, so being able to do both and combine them is something people find to be really cool,” he says.

Tony did this finish for the facade of the Eddie Bauer store at Mall of America.

 

Website Marketing

Tony derives most of his project leads from his website, Wall Art by Tony. He’s worked very hard over the years to boost his website in the Google search rankings for murals and Venetian plasters in the Twin Cities area. “Because of my experience in computers, I was able to figure out how to jump my business to the top of the Google search results without paying for it,” he says.

His Google-search strategy was to start his website right away, even before his business was fully established. That enabled him to build some longevity for his website, which he knew would eventually help improve his rankings. “I kept making little updates so Google would know it was a live site,” Tony reports, “and right around the two-year mark, I started making some 2- or 3-minute long videos of me painting murals and doing some faux finishing—all done with simple editing tools and using a bit of background music.”

Those videos really had an impact. “You can look at analytics to see how long people are on your site, and as soon as I put the videos up, people went from staying on my website from about 30 seconds to 5 to 10 minutes,” Tony says. “The videos kept people on my site a little bit longer. Google really liked that and shot me right to the top of the search results, and I’ve been on there ever since.”

Now Tony’s website is very extensive, including not just the videos but a large portfolio of projects in such categories as “Murals,” “Kids’ Rooms,” “Venetian Plaster,” “Faux Finishes” and “Commercial.” In addition to promoting his work via his website, Tony also is active in Facebook (visit his Facebook page here), which makes it easy for clients to share images with their friends and helps Tony gain a nice word-of-mouth following.

Tony also gets work from interior designers and builders as well as from the local Sherwin-Williams paint stores. “I do a lot of networking with Sherwin-Williams and pass out my cards in various stores,” he says. “They even let me paint a mural in one of their places. I probably get close to 10 jobs a year from them.”

Tony created these faux pillars for Chanhassen Motorplex.

The Thrill of Painting

Tony still gets the same thrill of creating a work of art on a wall as when he did his first oak tree mural several years ago. Even if he’s painting a trompe l’oeil design on a two-story ceiling fixture, he still loves the excitement of being on-site to create the mural.

“I’ve been asked a couple times to paint on canvas, but I really prefer going to the actual site and painting on the actual wall or ceiling,” Tony says. “Every artist is amazed by the Sistine Chapel, but I don’t think it would have quite the same impact if it had been painted on the ground level and then glued to the ceiling. It would still be amazing, but it’s even more amazing knowing what Michelangelo went through, working high above the ground, to complete the work.”

Tony believes that people still like the idea of painted artwork for their home or business—whether it’s a faux finish or a mural. “I think there’s just a little bit more magic in knowing someone is actually there painting on the wall or the ceiling,” he says.

Related Article: ART IS ALL AROUND

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