In 2023, North Carolina will be celebrating “The Year of the Trail”—a commemoration of the state’s trails, greenways and blueways. Picture hiking Grandfather Mountain, paddling the French Broad River State Trail or biking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. You can also add a new, unique trail to these greatest hits: the NC Musicians Mural Trail.
Currently in development by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, this trail stretches from Hamlet, where a larger-than-life John Coltrane appears on side of the opera house, to Black Mountain, where Roberta Flack gazes confidently from the wall outside the Black Mountain Brewery. The path wends from the birthplace of one North Carolina musician to another, tracing the eye-catching murals of Scott Nurkin.
Chapel Hill-based, Charlotte-born Nurkin conceived the idea of memorializing great North Carolina musicians in 2010, then waited patiently for the perfect moment. “There’s always been a stigma attached to graffiti,” he says. “And it can be terrible—an ugly scrawled name or insulting word. But there’s another side to it, and in 2022 ‘street art’ can be good enough to be displayed in museums. We’re really having a heyday for murals.”
The decision by NCDNCR to establish a trail tracking Nurkin’s murals epitomizes this appreciation—as does the mural collection at University Hill in Durham, known as UHill Walls. Created in fall 2020 and featuring 40 murals painted by local, national and international artists, the collection includes Nurkin’s luminous portrait of Durham-born Betty Davis, the singer-songwriter known as the “queen of funk,” and one of the first murals on Nurkin’s list.
Road Map to Success
Nurkin says he has been an artist and musician “since forever.” He started his first rock band in high school, toured the country with a band during his 20s, and currently performs with three different bands, each representing a different genre. Even before he picked up a drumstick, Nurkin was an artist. “Age 5,” he explains. “My awesome mom enrolled us in art classes. My brothers got bored pretty quick, but I couldn’t get enough.” He studied art at UNC-Chapel Hill and at the prestigious Istituto Lorenzo de’ Medici art school in Italy, then took a two-year apprenticeship with Chapel Hill muralist Michael Brown. When touring with his band took over, Nurkin took occasional painting jobs to help cover the bills.
Among those early painting jobs were the ones he did for Pepper’s Pizza, a Chapel Hill restaurant Nurkin describes as “ground zero for cool for 25 years.” In exchange for pizza, Nurkin drew a mural-sized map of North Carolina on the side of the building and placed smaller paintings of famous North Carolina musicians onto their hometowns. The road map of the artists appeared on the back of Pepper’s Pizza’s menu. “I’ve always been impressed by the wealth of musical talent from our state, and wanted to share this story,” he says. “These are just really groundbreaking musicians. Earl Scruggs, the greatest banjo player of all time. Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane, two of the greatest jazz musicians. Nina Simone!”
When Pepper’s Pizza closed its doors in 2013, pizza-eater Mark Katz, who also happened to be chair of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Music, bought the portraits to hang as a collection in the UNC department. “The Pepper’s pictures put the idea into my head,” Nurkin says. “I couldn’t stop thinking about doing those musicians on a larger scale.”
On the Grid
Growing up, Nurkin never imagined he’d be a mural painter, and he just happened into his apprenticeship with Brown. Nurkin quickly learned that painting murals “checked all the boxes” for what he wanted to be doing: “You get to be outside all day and paint for money,” he says.
From Brown, Nurkin learned how to replicate his small sketches onto walls using the classic grid method, “the way Michelangelo did it.” More recently, he has incorporated digital technology, using a doodle grid method where he scribbles out a basic sketch of his piece directly onto the wall, photographs it, then digitally overlays it onto his original piece to create a road map for himself. With Brown, and for several years after, he relied exclusively on paintbrushes. But watching a 2017 video of a sophisticated muralist using spray paint convinced him to leave his brushes behind.
Since opening The Mural Shop in 2004, Nurkin has created pictures in all styles, from the realistic images of North Carolina musicians to a “cartoonish” bar code floating amidst locally grown veggies for his “very cool buddy” at Standard Beer + Food in Raleigh. Like playing in a band, Nurkin has found that focusing on preparation has perfected the actual painting process. The Betty Davis mural in Durham took a weekend. The Ben E. King mural he did in Hendersonville took just a day.
And like playing in a band, painting a mural is a performance. People love to watch Nurkin paint. “I wear headphones so I hardly notice when someone is watching, but I’m always happy to engage with anyone if they want to chat.”
Pockets of Beauty
As a lifelong North Carolinian, Nurkin feels lucky to be learning more about the state through the musician murals. “It’s been unbelievable,” he says. “My favorite thing has been getting to paint in these small towns. I’m embedded for a week, and get to try cool restaurants, and learn all of the insane small-town political drama. It’s always these cool places I’d never have gone—Marshville or Sparta or Sylva. Our state is full of incredible pockets of beauty.”
The Year of the Trail celebration will last one year, but Nurkin plans on continuing to paint North Carolina musicians for as long as it takes. “Hopefully until I’m 80,” he says. He started with the really famous ones, like Nina Simone, which helped open doors. But there are hundreds of backup singers and players he still wants to paint. “Ultimately,” he says, “I want to teach people about all of these incredible musicians.”
The Mural Shop:
NC Musicians Mural Trail:
Year of the Trail: