The man behind the murals: Jonas Never on painting sports murals, his process, and working in public

By Gurjit Kaur
Medill Reports

LOS ANGELES — While everyone else was watching Tiger Woods play, Jonas Never spent his week at the Genesis Invitational painting the legendary golfer. Never, a prominent Los Angeles muralist, grew up imagining he’d become a baseball player or run a bar — like Sam Malone from “Cheers.” However, after he tore his rotator cuff, labrum and bicep tendon, he turned to art, realizing it was more fun than any of the other subjects he was learning in college.

Never has built a large following and has become famous for his incorporation of pop culture, celebrities and athletes in his work. Besides Woods, he has painted well-known murals of other professional athletes, including LeBron James, Ronda Rousey and Kobe Bryant. As he worked on finishing his latest piece near the 2nd hole at the Riviera Country Club, Never reflected on his unique start, his typical workday and shared which player he’d like to paint next.

Your work first got attention in the sports world when you did a mural of Stuart Scott after he died in 2015. Did you imagine it would lead to a career?

I really didn’t expect the Stuart Scott mural to turn into a career. I’d always played sports growing up. I had spent so much of my life bartending too, that every night you would see SportsCenter come on, and Stuart Scott made a big impact on me. When I did [the mural], it was really cool to see the sports world come together and the way his daughters flew out from Canada to come see the wall. I realized that there was something powerful about doing sports murals.

A mural of ESPN sports broadcaster Stuart Scott by Jonas Never above the Melody Bar & Grill in Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Never/Twitter)

What’s something people don’t realize about creating murals?

Most people don’t realize it’s a long workday. It’s not the whole stereotype of an artist being a stoner. You’re not in the studio with a bottle of booze. You’re climbing ladders, you’re in the sun. It can get tiring. Hell, some days I’m painting both here and doing a Kobe mural at downtown. I feel like I’ve run a marathon, my legs are all shaky from 12 hours on a ladder. You can’t drink after. You have to approach it almost like these guys who are teeing off at seven in the morning if you’re going to get stuff done the next day.

Are 12-hour days typical?

If there’s a deadline, absolutely. Otherwise, some days you really have it when you get up, and you can paint for hours. Other days, you have to know when to call it when it’s really not there. And when you’re doing public art, there’s social pressure to get it done well. If you’re in your studio, any mistake, any lazy day, people don’t see; but when you’re painting in public, people can. Now with Instagram, like the one I’m doing downtown, someone posted a photo last night of the new mural and I’m like “Oh no, it’s not done.” It’s a little more exciting that way, I guess. You have to hold yourself to a higher standard.

Is it frustrating when your work is posted on social media before it’s finished?

It’s different. I wouldn’t say frustrating cuz it’s fun to be part of the process, like I met you out here painting. You get much more interaction and much more satisfaction being part of a community.

How did you decide what you wanted the mural of Tiger to be?

Any time where you’re working with a situation as big as the Genesis Invitational, you don’t get a lot of say. But they had a really good idea with Tiger’s legacy, they wanted young Tiger and current Tiger [in the mural]. If I’d done this on the street, I probably would have done young Tiger morphing into current Tiger, like a 3D-effect almost. But this is a country club, you want a more postcard-y photo. I figured, current Tiger, looking over the young Tiger [would] put a smile on his face watching him drive. I thought that was more warming and more Disney-like.

Going off of that, generally do you get a lot of say in what you paint?

I always try and keep some level of artistic integrity. I’ll turn down a job that I don’t want to do, or I think it’s a bad idea. I’ve turned down a lot of the Kobe and Gianna murals because people are capitalizing on the tragedy. I have kind of a sliding scale of the less they pay, the less say they have. If there’s something that I really want to do and there’s no paycheck, I’ll still do it. But if the money is ridiculous, then I’m a lot more open to painting what they want.

Any advice for someone wanting a career as a muralist?

You don’t really know where opportunities are going to come from, like the Stuart Scott one I did for free, just for fun. That led to a million opportunities, and I found more often than not, the really low-paying, or the ones I want to do end up leading to a lot more business. So I think that’s why it’s important to find something you really care about.

What about for someone struggling to become successful?

Bartend, waitress, do something at night so you can paint during the day. Then you’re not relying on taking every job to make your art career work. You’re not going to paint murals at night anyways.

Do you have a dream mural?

I really want to paint Pat Tillman, the old Arizona Cardinals football player somewhere in Tempe. He was the one killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. His little brother is one of my good friends. I mean, you can show me any city on the map, and I’ll find something that I really want to paint there.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Finished mural of current Tiger Woods smiling at his 16-year-old self from his PGA Tour debut in 1992. (Gurjit Kaur/MEDILL)


Photo at top: Muralist Jonas Never working on the Woods’ mural, capturing his legacy at the Riviera Country Club. (Gurjit Kaur/MEDILL)