NAME: John Winters
OCCUPATION: Co-Founder of PRHBTN Street Art Festival
LOCATION: Lexington, Kentucky, USA
LINKS: prhbtn.com | Facebook PRHBTN | Instagram @prhbtn
After watching the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop by street artist Banksy, John’s now-wife Jessica said to him, We should have a street art show. He said, Uh-huh, yeah yeah, that’s great. But she was serious. And now, nearly 10 years later, they have a street art show featuring national + international artists and it’s still going strong.
In our conversation, John shares:
- common pain points artists have
- differences between boutique and larger mural festivals
- suggestions for how artists should talk about money
Can you give us a brief overview of what PRHBTN is and why you and your wife, Jessica, decided to found the organization?
PRHBTN is, at its core, a street art festival that started in 2011 as a way to highlight local street and graffiti artists. We felt like they weren’t getting an opportunity to show their work in galleries like other painters and were staying in the streets.
The reason we started— when we were dating and Jessica was traveling for work, she’s like, What movie should I watch? And I was like, You should watch Exit Through The Gift Shop, it’s about Banksy and other street artists. So she watches the movie, calls me back and says, We should have a street art show. I was like, Uh-huh, yeah yeah, that’s great. But she was serious. And now we have a street art show.
Neither of us have backgrounds in art or administration. We have backgrounds in event management and promotion marketing. It started off as a big concert with a bunch of art in a music venue. We were just stacking the art salon-style to the ceilings and making it a bit weird and offbeat. And it went better than we expected.
We just kept doing it every year and now we bring in national and international street artists to paint large-scale public murals all around Lexington. We also have a locals- and regionals-only gallery that’s really the core of what we do. For the month of October we run around like chickens with our heads cut off doing 17 different things at the same time, hoping that at the end it won’t be a disaster.
It’s been fun. We’ve done close to 40 murals in Lexington now. We’ve sold I don’t know how many thousands of dollars of art for local artists and we do our best to take as little as possible from that. We don’t take salaries, we don’t make any money, there is no profit margin, there are no stock options. We do it all for fun. It’s grown from a small we-have-no-idea-what-we’re-doing thing to something that we feel has actually made an impact on Lexington, which has been really cool.
That’s awesome. What continues to drive you to do this work so many years later?
It’s fun. We’re going into our ninth year. Every year is just crazy, but for us, we love meeting artists and love talking to people who are pursuing their passion all over the world. We love giving a platform to local artists who may not have ever shown work before, who may be doing stuff in the streets, in their bedroom, their backyard. So it’s really cool to give that kind of exposure.
It’s fun for us and the community has been so supportive, the artists still want to come. There’s no monetary incentive for us, it’s literally just, We’re going to do this until we don’t want to anymore.
Do you ever see taking salaries from it?
Yeah, we’re discussing transitioning over into being a 501(c)(3) non-profit and then maybe taking a small administration fee. But now every single dollar of what we do is funded by the community and we don’t feel like it’s fair for us to put that in our pockets. We feel like if we’re taking money that someone else worked hard to earn, then we want to put it all into the art. We raise basically — to the exact dollar — what we need every year, then we spend that money.
How many murals and concerts do you do each year?
We usually do between four and six murals a year. We’ve done as many as nine, the fewest we’ve ever done is four. The reason why we do that is mainly because there’s just Jessica and me. We don’t have any employees, I don’t have an assistant — I would love an assistant — so we can only manage so many at the same time. We figured out our sweet spot and it’s also primarily due to the fact that we’re a small city.
We’ve looked at bigger festivals and we feel like if we limit it to four visiting artists, that means you can be like, I’m going to go watch people do murals today. And in three hours you can hop between four murals and watch four people work.
But if there’re 40 people working, it’s just overwhelming, you don’t get to see everything. And we feel it’s even better for the artists from an exposure standpoint. We’ve talked to artists working in bigger cities and they’re like, I’m a number, I’m in a hotel room, I never meet the organizers, no one comes to watch. I just go, paint and leave.
Then as far as concerts, we throw one or two in the fall, usually centered around the festival, and then we’ll co-sponsor stuff throughout the rest of the year — mainly fun dance or electronic music. We’ve always kind of wanted to make it more of a party. We have no interest in serious shit.
Do you find PRHBTN to be pretty interactive, with a good number of people coming to see the murals being painted?
Yeah, yeah, that’s one of the coolest things. Every year we have a lot of local school teachers who will come out and bring classes with kids anywhere from 7 years old up through college. They love to come out and sit and watch, try to figure out what’s going on, meet the artists.
A lot of our artists have told us that they love coming to Lexington because they get treated like visiting royalty while they’re here. They’re like, People come and bring us art that they’ve made and coffee, food and local beer. So they love it. It’s great.
I think that’s one of the biggest impacts that it’s had, is allowing people to interact with art outside of a gallery. Driving around town, watching people walk up and stop, take a picture or a selfie in front of a mural is kind of like, Ah, cool, I had that tiniest little bit of impact on that guy’s day. So it’s pretty neat.
And Lexington definitely didn’t have that years ago.
No. LexArts did a great mural project about 15 years ago with a ton of murals around Lexington. But when you get into an arts organization that has a bunch of money and board members and you have to satisfy the needs of each one of these people down the line, you get murals that are like, Oh, it’s horses again. Neat. Whereas we don’t have to do that. It’s just the two of us, so we go, What do you want to do — do you like that artist? I like that artist. All right, cool, let’s bring them. It’s a lot easier that way.
You also do commission-free art shows. Have you seen those grow over the years?
Yeah, the first year was wild because nobody knew what they were doing. We didn’t know how to sell art, we didn’t know how to price stuff, it was a mess. A disaster. When I say we didn’t know what we were doing, we literally didn’t know what we were doing.
The last couple of years we’ve partnered with the Lexington Art League and they have the Loudoun House, which is this beautiful gothic mansion that is an art gallery, so we’ve been able to put art in there.
Last year we had over 100 artists in the show and maybe half of them had never shown before. We had the largest opening attendance-wise that the Art League had ever had and they’ve been open for years. Because we were able to say, Here’s a whole bunch of new people, bring your friends, it’s free, come out. And the response was just overwhelming.
I think it’s been great for that and also for a lot of people who want to start doing murals or outside work. We’ve been able to connect local artists with individuals and business owners and get people out in a way where they can make money off of their art and their craft and get practice through meeting our visiting artists. It’s been really cool to see a lot of our guys start doing work in town, out of town and really getting somewhere with their art. And hopefully a little bit of that is because of us. So I’m pretty stoked about it.
When it comes to funding, you use Kickstarter and also have project donors. What’s the breakdown of where the money comes from and how do you determine what that key number is to make it work?
The first year we did murals we brought in four artists. We invited a bunch of people because we were like, There’s no way they’re going to come, but they said yes, which we were not expecting. [Laughter] We had Phlegm, Odeith, Gaia and Eduardo Kobra.
We didn’t know what anything costs. We didn’t know how much lifts cost, we didn’t know how to get paint and we didn’t know how we were going to raise the money. Over the last eight years we’ve figured out like, Okay, this is my lift guy, this is my paint guy. This is the average per square foot, how many cans they’re going to need. This is my Airbnb guy, this is my hotel guy, this is how much a car costs.
Per mural, depending on size and people, it usually costs about $4,000 to $6,000. The number is also based on, you know, if they’re flying from Australia or flying from New York, if they’re bringing two assistants or if they’re coming by themselves, if we need to rent a car.
So we sit down every year and make this big, messy sheet and break it out to what we think it’s going to be and then add about $5,000 to it, because we’re going to need that money. Then we essentially go, All right, Kickstarter, we need this number. We’ve been lucky enough to usually raise about 95% of our funds through Kickstarter. The average donation is about $100. We have consistent donors and new people every year. And then that is also how we distribute stickers and T-shirts, do signed cans, plaques and that sort of thing. This is the only way to get any merch[andise] since we don’t have an online store.
The other 5% usually comes from a couple of local businesses or a council person if we’re doing murals in their district. We’ll talk to them and usually get a little honorary donation from the city because they’ve come to realize, after the first couple of murals, like, Oh, these are good things, it would be nice to have that in my neighborhood. So that’s pretty cool.
We’re also intensely bare bones. People stay at our house, I’m driving them around, I’m picking up paint. In other cities, murals cost usually somewhere in the $50,000 per mural range because of their overhead admin costs and you’ve got four people bringing coffee.
Are any of the muralists getting paid for the murals through PRHBTN?
It depends on the muralist. A lot of the muralists treat them as “spraycations,” they call them. They travel the world eight months out of the year and they can do it for free. But obviously that doesn’t pay your rent at home, your food and whatnot.
So we do offer an honorarium and that price fluctuates based on the artist and their needs and what we have available. We want to make sure people get paid for their time. In the past we didn’t because nobody ever asked us. If they had said, Hey, I need this number to come, we’d be like, Oh, okay. But no one had asked us, so we were like, I guess they do it for free.
For a lot it’s the dreaded “exposure.” At a large festival a smaller artist’s name is now next to How & Nosm, Phlegm, [Eduardo] Kobra and Fintan Magee — that level of artist. So there is that. But we definitely try and do a per diem and an honorarium and make sure everyone has enough money to eat. I mean, people have to be paid for their work, so we do our best, we just don’t have a ton of money.
Do you think part of that is because things are changing? Considering back when you guys started, artists were looking for walls almost anywhere whereas now murals are becoming something that’s funded by different cities.
Yeah, it’s the homogenization of street art. It’s become so ubiquitous to every city. It’s been really fun to watch some up-and-coming metropolitan cities really embrace the concept and then put it in all their marketing materials. If you see a commercial about Austin it’s like, There’s music and barbeque — look at our murals! It’s like, Ah, interesting, they would have never done that before.
I grew up in Connecticut. The reason I was attached to street art was that I would take the train or drive into New York City and Boston and I’d be going under these tunnels thinking, Wow, this is rad, all this guerilla, crazy street art. It was amazing. Now it’s like, Come join our festival, it’s going to be so nice. It’s cool, but it’s weird.
When we first started, there were definitely factions of the city like, Oh my god, there’s going to be graffiti everywhere. But we live in Downtown and I drive around all the time and I don’t see it anywhere.
Yeah, we just drove all over, we didn’t see anything.
Yeah, exactly. But I think artists are smart and they’ve gotten wise to the idea that there is money in this and they need to be paid for their work and I think that’s important. It’s a great thing that they’ve transitioned into and we’re more than happy to pay them. We just wish we could pay them more.
Do you pay the musicians for the concerts?
If we bring in an outside artist we’ll have contracts and payment guarantees, standard music booking.
As far as locals, we have an everybody-gets-paid rule. People are notorious for not paying DJs. Like, Oh, you just got up there and pressed play for an hour, we’re not going to pay you. No. So we budget what we think we should pay our DJs and what we think we should pay our performers. We always have live music acts at the gallery opening — it’s a free opening but we pay them. So we put it in our budget and then if we sell tickets and it balances out, awesome. If we don’t, we’re still paying the artists.
I have a background in booking and promotion and did underground all-ages hardcore metal shows. I saw these guys touring and opening bands not getting paid. It’s like, Hey, you practiced then you came and performed. Let me at least pay for your drinks, you know what I mean? It’s something that I feel strongly about. It’s not a lot of money but at least it’s something.
Can you also talk a little bit about how your partnerships with both LexArts and Lexington Art League helped PRHBTN grow and improve the local Lexington arts community?
Yeah, LexArts has been great, they function as our fiscal sponsors. Since we’re not a 501(c)(3), we can take donations, but those donations won’t be tax-deductible. So they essentially collect all of our funds, which makes them all tax-deductible for everyone who is donating.
They’re fantastic in that they also highlight a lot of our work and bring a lot of attention to a wider audience. We appeal to a lot of people who are kind of in that downtown core and they give us a lot of exposure outside of that, to people in the suburbs.
Art League has been awesome to have, an actual real space to show art. We’ve hung paintings in warehouses, music venues and the cellaring room of a brewery one time. It’s been a mess. So to be able to get into a building with hardwood floors and white walls and hang people’s art in a solid way has been incredible. It adds some legitimacy, I think, to the art that people are putting up. And we like partnering with someone who is a little bit more receptive to our ideas than most other people would be. We love their attitude. They’re very focused on Lexington, local artists and doing something really cool for Lexington.
What percentage of the art pieces sell during PRHBTN?
We don’t sell a ton but we probably sell about 10% or 15% of the pieces that go in. Last year we had over 300 pieces in the show and the prices were anywhere between $30 and $500. We try to buy a bunch of pieces every year because we always think there’s great art.
How do the different artists and musicians get chosen for involvement— are they finding you or are you finding them?
Our national and international artists are chosen by Jessica and me. And that is done in two ways.
On Instagram we follow a lot of street art blogs and try to look at it as much as we can throughout the year and pick artists that we’ve been in love with forever or think are doing incredible work. We seek out something interesting and also something that’ll fit Lexington. There are artists who do incredible work that I think Lexington is not ready for. So we’re very aware of our community and how things will fit. Then we contact people and some of them want to come, some don’t. Every once in a while we’ll get emails from people who seek us out and we’re like, Their work is amazing. That’s one of those things — you always think you’re sending an email out into the abyss and no one is ever going to read it. But it never hurts — I read all of the emails. We’ve brought artists in who have emailed us out of the blue and it’s worked out really well so far.
Our local artists, we do an annual call for art. We publicize it, market it, do the whole thing and send it out to pretty much all of Kentucky. It also seeps into the surrounding states — we’ve gotten some people from Ohio, Tennessee and Indiana who have come out. Everyone sends their submissions and this really nice guy named Logan Dennison over at the Art League sifts through them all and does this little presentation. Then we sit down and pick what we want to put in. But we pretty much take everything unless it’s either off topic or off-style. We don’t do a lot of landscape or horse photography. We don’t do standard art. No paintings of bourbon.
We hang the show a couple of weeks out. It’s crazy because that size space is only really supposed to have about 80 pieces. So putting in 300 is crazy, but it gives it a little bit more of a hectic and live atmosphere that I think people appreciate. And it’s great to meet all the artists when they come in for the opening. People who are like, I’ve never been in a show before, it’s rad. So that’s really cool for us.
And then as far as music is concerned, it’s the same thing. We just do what we like. Since there’s no financial driver to it, if I don’t enjoy it I’m not going to do it. So we try to help out a lot of our friends and people who are doing cool things, people who are passionate about their music and want to have a good time. Between the two of us it’s more of, What do we want to do this year? And then hopefully other people enjoy it. We’re batting about .750, I think. We’ve got three good ideas for every one bad one.
Since you work with so many different artists and musicians, what are some of the common pain points you hear them talk to you about when it comes to making a living from what they do?
Yeah, for the visiting artists what we hear a lot about is the impersonal nature to the industry. We run what some people call a boutique festival, which is a little bit different from, say, Wide Open Walls or POW! WOW! Hawaii, one of those big festivals with 60 people.
There’s a definite focus on being paid a fair dollar amount for your work and being able to understand what that dollar amount is and how to ask for it. Nobody likes asking for money. It’s definitely one of the things that I notice is the most awkward when we’re with artists, which is why we’ve developed a pay-upfront deal, where it’s like, Hey, welcome to Lexington, here’s a check, or, Here’s your per diem. Because you don’t want to have them sitting around going [drums fingers on table], Where’s my money? Because that’s awkward.
I think that the financial aspect will always be the craziest part of it. But you know, for different artists it’s different things. Some of them love to travel, some of them don’t. Some of them love meeting new people, some of them don’t.
Is there any advice you can also give to artists about how to ask for money or how to deal with that?
Yeah, I think being honest and direct upfront is the key. It sounds really hard and it is really hard, but once you start doing it, it gets to be second nature.
We greatly respect when artists will come and be like, All right, where’s my money? Like, right off the bat. Especially in emails, like, Hey, if I’m coming for this, this is what it’s going to cost. I think finding that number and being able to do it is okay. Also understanding that if someone is not willing to pay what you think you’re worth, don’t do it. But be able to negotiate. Understand what your baseline is, what you need to eat, what you need to have in order for it to make sense to you. And that number can fluctuate.
Have any artists come back to you and said, Hey, I only got these other opportunities because I was involved with PRHBTN or anything like that?
I hope so. I think that’s been more so reflected in our local artists. Throughout the year we farm out smaller and interior projects to our local guys. I think Lexington has changed and there’s art in three times as many places as there used to be when we started.
We do what we can and have definitely gotten a couple of people into festivals. For example Said [Dokins], who was with us a couple of years back, was one of those guys who emailed us out of the blue and we were like, This guy’s work is awesome! He was the nicest guy on the face of the planet. We loved having him here. And when he was like, Hey, I’m looking for more festivals, can you put me in touch? I was like, Talk to this person in Detroit, talk to this person in St. Louis. He’s been able to bounce around and do more festivals in the States because of that, which has been so cool.
We also think everyone we bring is too big to be here. Like Fintan Magee, who was here last year, he’s like a rock star, I was so excited having him here. And he’s just the sweetest dude. We got the poor guy his first tattoo ever while he was here.
What did he get?
This is great. So last year my friends who were opening a tattoo shop were like, We want to get involved in PRHBTN. I was like, All right, I have an idea — you come up with a PRHBTN logo tattoo, I’ll get it tattooed on me and we’ll put it on all the marketing material, it will be hilarious. So I’ve got this big PRHBTN tattoo that’s a little bit bigger than a softball on my leg.
When we had our donor party at the tattoo parlor they’re like, We’ll do free tattoos for whoever is here. And one of the artists has a line drawing of himself as a baby called Baby Frank. He travels around to different places, gets to know people and then he tattoos Baby Frank on them. Fintan was like, I’ve never gotten a tattoo. So Fintan’s first tattoo is a tattoo of Baby Frank. It’s on his ankle and it’s the funniest thing. He was texting with his girlfriend and was like, No, no, no, it’s cool. Super funny.
He’ll never forget his trip to Lexington.
Yeah, exactly. Ever. We permanently scarred him. [Laughter]
How do you get the word out for Kickstarter?
We’ve got about 5,000 to 6,000 likes on Facebook and we do a lot of Facebook targeted advertising. And the cool thing is the community sees it as investing in something that’s given back to them. That’s part of the reason why we keep it set up financially where it’s at and that’s the benefit of it being non-financially motivated. Because we’ve been able to say since the day it started, If you donate $100 to this project, $100 will go straight into art.
People have an ownership of it and it’s like, Oh, it’s PRHBTN Kickstarter time. And people just donate. We have literally sat down and been like, We’re going to have to donate money to this to get it over the edge, but it always works out. We’ve never had a problem hitting our goal and always hit it pretty far in advance. We’re always really surprised when we do. We’re kind of waiting on the year where people just aren’t interested anymore, but we’re doing this until it’s not fun or nobody cares.
And what’s your ideal future for PRHBTN?
I think little pieces of it will continue to evolve, but I think it will mostly stay the way it is. I don’t think we’ll ever do more artists. I don’t think we’ll ever grow it into this big, corporate, sponsored-by-Coca-Cola thing — although we would take sponsors if anybody wants to sponsor us.
We’ve had offers to go into other cities, we’ve had offers to consult, but we don’t see it leaving Lexington. We love living here, this is our home. We do it because it’s fun, we love the people who are here, we love being able to experience it.
We’re going into our 9th year and are pretty well-established. PRHBTN encompasses almost Jessica and my entire relationship — we’ve done it since the first year we were together. I don’t think we ever thought we’d get this far. I honestly thought we’d do it once and never do it again. It’s been cool.
Do you have any tips for artists or musicians who are involved in PRHBTN that can help them make the most of it as professional artists?
I mean, we’ll try to make the most of it for them. We’re big on, you know, Let’s go taste bourbon, let’s go see horse racing, come over to our house, we’ll cook you dinner.
I think for artists in general, if you’re in a position where you’re traveling, meeting new people, taking on big projects or working closely with someone you may not have worked with before, hang out and have two more beers than you should is my best recommendation. We have made incredible friends from working hard during the day, getting things done, making sure the artist has what they need and then sitting down, having dinner and getting a little too drunk. I think it makes a big difference.
There is that human connection, that friendship that can grow into something else that allows you to have a positive experience where it may be like, Okay, it’s 35 degrees out, the lift isn’t working and the paint won’t spray. I don’t have the right color and my shoes are wet. Or an artist is yelling at his agent on the phone and just losing it. We’ve had those days. And the way that we’ve been able to handle that other than pulling our hair out is being like, All right, let’s figure this out. Let’s talk to each other like people instead of like it’s a business. So I think being able to get your work done when it’s a business and being able to hang out.
We keep in touch with most of our artists and try and write recommendation letters. And we’re going to visit a couple of them when we’re in Europe. I’ve spent countless hours staying up way too late when I had too much to do, talking over theories on art and street art, travel, personal visions on life and where they’re going. You know, learning about how people do things, learning about the process of how they travel, how they work, what their personal love is. Spending four hours at a record store with an artist because he’s like, Oh my god, they have all the hip hop I want.
I think it’s important to make that kind of human friendship connection on top of the business. It changes everything and it’s really cool. That would be my recommendation. Have fun.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. PRHBTN mural images, audio and/or video courtesy of the PRHBTN unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- Banksy – artist
- Eduardo Kobra
- Exit Through the Gift Shop – documentary by Banksy
- Fintan Magee – artist
- Gaia – artist
- How & Nosm – artists
- LexArts – cultural development + advocacy
- Lexington Art League
- Loudoun House – contemporary art in a historic building, part of Lexington Art League
- MTO – artist
- Phlegm – artist
- POW! WOW! – worldwide festivals
- POW! WOW! Hawaii Festival
- ROA – artist
- Odeith – artist
- Said Dokins – artist
- Wide Open Walls – art website