Painter & muralist Pedro Barrios “never intentionally” tried to become an artist. In fact, he even has two college degrees (marketing & nursing) to prove that he didn’t. His deep love of art changed the trajectory of his career and quickly drew him into a gallery ownership and curation role after earning his second degree.
Now, Pedro is working as a full-time artist as 50% of Denver’s The Worst Crew with fellow artist Jaime Molina. Their collaborative murals have helped transform the Colorado landscape and continue to make it an infinitely more beautiful place with each wall they paint.
In our conversation, we talk about:
- How they’re consistently finding work through developers
- Why understanding client needs is essential for future business opportunities
- Why The Worst Crew stopped signing their murals
I saw you have degrees in marketing and nursing. Can you tell us a little bit about your path from those degrees into art?
I’ve always done art for myself, ever since I can remember. But I was never intentionally trying to become an artist.
Originally when I went to university I wanted to get a business degree because it’s something you could, no matter what in life, utilize. So I got a marketing degree around 2005 and it’s something that I still use to this day — owning my own business, running a gallery and everything else.
The nursing thing came around because I thought it would be a good plan B. I was always interested in the sciences as well, and it would be something that’d be fulfilling. Most nurses work 12-hour shifts three days a week so I could work a certain amount of hours per week and still have plenty of time to pursue anything else that I wanted to do and make a decent living. So that was kind of the idea behind that.
I graduated from nursing school in 2013 and that same week I got approached about opening up a gallery space in RiNo [Arts District in Denver]. That was something I’ve always wanted to do and I couldn’t really pass on that offer. So I’ve actually never nursed professionally in my life.
For the gallery, did you own or manage it?
I owned it with a couple of other business partners and we had different facets. One of my partners was the buyer and curator of the retail side, I did all the curation and running of the gallery and then the other one did all the design work for our own line of goods we made.
We thought of the space as more of a gallery, and then it was also a retail space with art and our own design-driven goods.
And that was your full-time job at that point?
Yeah. Well, that and I started painting murals with Jaime [Molina] around that time as well.
I read that you did your first mural with him around 2012, is that right?
So you were planning to do nursing, but then didn’t do that because of the gallery. Were those friends of yours who approached you for the gallery?
Yeah, yeah. One of the guys, he’s a very good friend of mine nowadays but I hadn’t met him before. He was brought on from a mutual friend that we knew who I had talked to years prior about maybe opening up a space or something. She had found out about this new building called The Source in RiNo, which was basically the first open-air market in Denver. Kind of European inspired. It was all food or drinks except for us.
So the concept for the space was that we would have foot traffic 365 days a year unlike a traditional gallery model where you usually have the opening and then you maybe have some people who come in later. But if you don’t sell most of the work in your opening, you’re probably not going to sell much work throughout. For us it didn’t matter. Every single weekend was as busy as our openings were and our openings were packed.
It was a great proof of concept and a great way to promote emerging artists who hadn’t had a chance yet. I tried not to go after anybody who was really well known to make it as price conscious as possible and also give the new artists the best chance of starting their careers. We did really well with that.
What led you to transition out of that?
It just wasn’t working out with my business partners so I ended up selling my shares.
What happened next?
I mean, Jaime’s and my business has been pretty booming ever since. But I’m working towards opening another space soon enough.
And have you been a full-time artist all that time?
Can you talk a little bit about the different ways you earn money? Is it mainly from commissions, like murals and public art?
Yeah, it’s mostly mural commissions. Every work we do is commission-based.
But we do a lot of different things. I still curate art and we license our work for different things, so these are different revenue streams that we have.
I also own an apartment — that gives me money too.
Nice, okay. What percentage of your income comes from commissions or licensing?
The commissions are definitely the bulk. So that’s probably 90, 95%.
Are your murals both public and private commissions?
It’s all public art in a sense but it’s from private commissions. We work a ton with local businesses, developers, realtors, things of that nature.
How do people find you?
Word of mouth.
Exclusively, pretty much?
Yeah. We do zero marketing which is funny because I come from a marketing background.
But I didn’t intentionally want to become a muralist, I would say. I mean, this is a dream come true, it’s always something I admired and wanted to try, but I wasn’t ever thinking it would be a business move.
We haven’t signed one of our murals in probably five years. One of the nice things is once people find us they really want to work with us. And usually every client that we work with has been amazing. We don’t get approached about doing a project that we’re not even interested in, for the most part.
Who are your more consistent types of clients?
And is it mostly repeat clients or do you have a mix?
A little bit of everything.
Going back to not signing your murals, were you ever concerned, like, How will people find us if we don’t have our names on here?
Of course, yeah.
How conscious was the decision not to do that?
It wasn’t really. There’s some internal thoughts about it and obviously not putting my name on there isn’t a great idea as far as making money in the future.
But for me, I don’t really love the way signatures look on public art projects, especially when you have this beautiful piece and there’s just this random type face or something that’s covering up an area. I think it distracts from the work itself.
We would definitely be open to other ways, like putting a little plaque next to it with the title of the work and description. But for us the most important thing is the piece.
It seems to be working for you two so that’s awesome. People are still finding you.
Yeah, by luck.
Denver is still a pretty small city and it’s a very tight-knit community. So I’ve been able to develop a lot of relationships as far as owning a gallery and also being an artist and just being in the RiNo area since 2007. So it’s worked out so far but not intentionally.
That’s just kind of what we do. But I would definitely not advise that to anybody. If I was a business owner or if I was representing an artist of course I’d want them to sign their work, of course I’d want them to have an Instagram account and post a bunch of pictures. But that’s not what I want to get out of this.
What’s your business structure between you and Jaime?
We own an LLC and it’s 50/50.
Why did you guys choose to do an LLC versus another type of entity?
I think we actually just switched it because of tax purposes. An accountant helped with that.
Do you guys have other people you work with, like a lawyer?
We haven’t had to hire a lawyer, but we definitely hired an accountant. We have a business accountant and I have a personal accountant as well.
And has your marketing background helped you with handling the business side of things?
Oh yeah, definitely for owning a gallery space and selling work and the business side of owning a business.
I know that we don’t really advertise how to find us or how to get in touch with us but once people get in touch I manage all the client side of things. So I definitely know how to work with clients.
This is my first series in quite a while. This body of work was inspired by a recent trip to New Mexico and the gorgeous palettes of the area. Many of my works revolve around the theme of repetition and the patterns they create. —Pedro Barrios
From what I read, your creative process sounds like it’s pretty fluid and intuitive. Can you tell us how that works with clients? And how much creative freedom they give you?
That’s the fun part for me about working with Jaime. If it’s just me making an art piece, I know what it’s going to look like in my head usually. But when I’m making something with Jaime, I know the outline of it, but I have no idea what it’s going to look like which makes it really fun for me and, I think, for us.
With clients, we give them a rendering of the piece on a wall, and it’s more like a line sketch. Then it’s a color theory. And then that’s where the client has to have a little bit of trust, but we have plenty of examples of our other projects to show clients. Usually if they like the line rendering, they’re going to love the piece once it’s done.
How many projects do you work on at a time?
Usually just one at a time but it depends. Luckily there are two of us so we have worked on numerous projects at the same time, just kind of jumping back and forth.
Collaboration with Jaime [Molina]. This piece was commissioned by a Mexican restaurant in the Vail area. The imagery was intended to be a celebration on what their establishment is trying to create. —Pedro Barrios
You mentioned you generally handle client communication, but since there are two of you, how do you split tasks in general?
So we work on the creative concepting together. And that’s why a lot of the lines get blurred as far as people who confuse us. They’ll say, It kind of looks like Jaime’s stuff. And I’m like, Yeah that’s because he’s the one that drew it, a lot of the times.
Jaime I would say is the lead designer and does the designing usually. Then we paint everything together. And I work with the client side of things as far as emailing and communication.
Do you ever run into any issues with splitting up the tasks that need to get done?
When we first started working collaboratively Jaime would do one thing and then I would do one thing and then maybe we’d meet somewhere in the middle. The pieces were good but I don’t know if they were at their best.
But once we let go of our egos and just worked on everything together — where it’s not so much about him, it’s not so much about me, it’s mostly about the piece — then it was easier.
I think that’s almost the same when working with a client. In my mind, the work needs to be as much for them as it is for you. Because the more emotionally attached they are to it, about the creation of it, the happier they’re going to be with the product.
Okay. And do you guys use contracts?
Yeah— well, depends. Sometimes.
So, what makes you decide whether you do or not?
Just the client, I would say. Or the size of the project.
What does your payment schedule look like?
We usually ask for a deposit of some sort that goes towards the design fee and materials and whatever is out of pocket. And then we usually just get paid once we’re done.
Is it a 50% deposit?
No, no, it’s usually just some kind of commitment. It depends on the project, but we’ve never had a problem as far as payments are concerned so far.
How do you guys figure out your pricing?
Now that we’ve been working for so long, I can almost look at a wall and know what the price is.
Usually the way we work is kind of two-fold. One, we have per-square-footage pricing or a range, and that depends on the complexity of the piece, the materials we’re going to use, the surface, how intricate it’s going to be.
Then usually Jaime will come up with a price and we’ll compare. Usually we pretty much come up with the same number.
So you come up with prices independently of each other?
Yeah, that way we know if somebody’s trying to bid too high or too low. And then we can have a conversation about it and both agree on the number before we send it out. Coming up with the price is the easy part.
What are the challenges, then?
I think that the more our work has gotten out there, the more expensive it’s gotten. So I think that’s a challenge.
Do you mean that the more expensive it’s gotten, the challenge is choosing when to raise your prices?
And how often do look at raising your prices?
We don’t really. We generally think that our prices are pretty fair but our prices have definitely gone up since the first New Belgium mural we got paid for. I think we probably worked on that thing for two months and I actually don’t know if I really even made money. I was just excited to paint a mural.
Do you remember how much you charged?
I don’t even know. Probably three grand or something like that for the whole thing.
But I mean, our prices have definitely gone up over the years but they’ve also gotten more consistent over the years.
Are there any other obstacles you’ve had to deal with?
I would say scheduling is really hard in our business just because of weather and other projects. I can tell you a project is going to take “x” amount of time but I’m not 100% sure. Weather alone can dictate tremendously how long a project is going to last so scheduling is really hard for us.
And I would think the costs too. Like when you have lifts that you’re renting and then weather comes in — does that go back to the client or do you just eat those costs?
All the logistics go back to the client and we haven’t had a problem with that yet.
But I mean, a lift is very expensive. So talking to a client about, you know, how much it’s going to cost for the art plus a lift, you’re talking about a pretty big commitment as far as money is concerned. So that’s definitely a challenge.
Earlier you mentioned the possibility of opening a gallery-type space. Can you share more about that or other future plans?
I mean, it’s not really a gallery per se. It’s more about opening up another art-driven space and having our own product line of goods driven from art in a folk type of way, sharing things that I’ve been able to collect and see through my travels.
When the election happened I think it was a big wake-up call for me, as far as being from South America and how I felt about being in this country. It was the first time in my life that I ever thought about moving outta here. But that’s the easy route. I’ve been thinking about how to reappropriate that in some way.
So that’s kind of what I’m working on, trying to figure out exactly what that looks like. Maybe have a small gallery component but I don’t want to have a traditional gallery with “x” amount of shows a year. It was extremely fulfilling, but also some of the most stressful moments in my entire life.
What about that experience was so stressful?
It was stressful for a lot of reasons.
One, was obviously money because it was a business. If I didn’t sell work, I wasn’t making money, the artists weren’t making money.
Two, I’m very emotionally attached to the art and the artists I work with, so if I wasn’t able to sell their work, I felt like I didn’t do my job. Which was also very stressful.
And this might sound weird just because I am an artist, but most artists are not the greatest business people in the world. Most people work for money but that’s not why artists work and I’ve realized that. They work because they want to make stuff.
The economics and the business side of things, that’s something that, for most or a lot of artists, is not even part of their persona or anything they even understand. Pricing, delivering work on time, everything else that you have to do as a business is not something that they’re even thinking about.
So working with artists can definitely be very stressful. I worked with emerging artists and a lot of them had never shown in a gallery setting before. We had a few artists who didn’t deliver by the opening date of the show and that literally kills our business and makes us look like we have no idea what we’re doing as a business.
What’s your advice to artists for how they could help make an experience like that more positive?
It’s all about being accountable.
And communication. I think communication is the most important part of any relationship — business or personal. If you have a problem you tell somebody ahead of time so they can plan ahead. But if you blindside them I think the relationship’s not going to go very well.
At the end of the day, your art represents you and putting out bad work could ruin your entire career because nobody will ever trust you again.
What aspect of your work do you love most and why do you do what you do?
I love the public art aspect of it. That’s a reason why I personally don’t care about marketing it. Because I really, truly hold it dear to my heart. I think it’s amazing that I’m doing this as a living, but at the end of the day we kind of do this for ourselves as well.
And I love working with Jaime and collaborating. It’s amazing because I don’t know what the piece is going to look like. So the whole time it’s a discovery every single day. He does something and I’m like, Oh man, that’s amazing, I want to mimic that over here. Or that makes me do something else.
Then the interactions we have with people passing by is incredible. That’s not something you get as a gallery artist if you work in your studio or your home. At gallery openings half of the people don’t really know who the artist is and people don’t see the development of the work and you don’t have those conversations.
A lot of street or public artists are very, very sensitive about taking pictures when the piece is not done. But I think it’s amazing to see something in progress, how other artists do it. It’s a very good learning experience for somebody.
And then what I love too is how, once we finish a piece, it becomes part of the environment. I think that’s one of the big reasons why we don’t sign our work. I truly believe the piece becomes part of the environment so it’s not really ours anymore, it’s everybody’s. So everybody interacts with it however they want, from taking a selfie to wedding pictures or whatever. They interact close up or from a distance. It just becomes something in itself that’s not just our work anymore.
Those are my favorite parts about what I do.
Collaboration with Jaime [Molina]. The concept for this piece came about thinking of the neighborhood which it resides in. The RiNo neighborhood [in Denver] is changing at an overwhelming and sometimes alarming pace. We wanted to try and capture that in the piece by having the character jumping. The narrative is that whenever he lands his surroundings will be completely different. —Pedro Barrios
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim Olson.
- Birdcall — restaurant
- CRUSH Walls Mural Festival — Denver, CO
- Jaime Molina — artist and collaborator with Pedro
- New Belgium Brewing
- RiNo Arts District —Denver, CO
“We’re pretty simple guys.” —Pedro, referring to the tools he and Jaime typically use.
- Bic pens for drawing*
- Procreate – digital illustration app available for iPad for sharing concepts with clients
- 99% of mural work is using exterior-based latex paint
- Behr paint samples (get at places like Home Depot)
*ArtisticAllies.com is free resource we love creating, but one way to help us keep the site going is to use links on this Resources page if you need to buy something. Links with an asterisk denote referral programs we belong to, which means if you use the link to buy something you need, your price is either the same (or cheaper) and it’s a no-cost way for you to support the site as we may earn a referral for purchases. We really appreciate it + thank you! : )