It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon in Kansas City outside the studio of Sike Style Industries, which is tucked away behind a non-descript door near 16th and Oak Street, across from the former KC Star printing press and its expansive, beautiful facade of horizontal teal green panels. The studio space is the former home of the SqueezeBox Theater, which, true to its name, is indeed cozy but just big enough to house muralist Phil “Sike Style” Shafer, along with his executive director, Holly Hayden, and fellow artist JT Daniels.
Shafer, who graduated from the KC Art Institute and started Sike Style Industries roughly 20 years ago, spent his early childhood in Brooklyn, NY, where modern street art was made famous.
“I always equate that experience to the foundation of my artistic style,” he explains. “In the ‘80s, New York was grimy and covered in graffiti. That sense of loud colors and crazy patterns and shapes is a part of what made me. I was a kid absorbing New York culture and then bringing it to the Midwest.”
Shafer’s grandfather, who was stationed at the former Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base, near Grandview, Mo. is the reason the Shafers found themselves in Kansas City. His mother, who graduated from Southeast High School, eventually traveled to New York, where she met Phil’s father before the family moved back to the KC area years later. “I’m a product of two urban missionaries,” he notes.
While his artist persona “Sike Style” is now perhaps the most recognizable muralist in the area, success was built through trial and error, hard work, time and focus. Shafer, whose early career was in graphic design, eventually stumbled into his current niche as a muralist.
“During Labor Day weekend in 2012, I had been working with a gallery and they loved what I did with my digital design, but they wanted me to hand paint it as well.” From there, Shafer experimented a bit around town before a friend saw some of his work. “He was like, ‘Oh, you paint murals? You should work on this mural.’” And from there, a new career path was born. “It was a release to get away from the computer and get my hands dirty again. Eight years or so later and here I am.”
Murals, once considered a form of elevated graffiti, have slowly and steadily been normalized and are now embraced by the public at large. In fact, more and more, these one-of-a-kind works are being leveraged by marketers looking to break through the clutter and deliver their message in a unique and authentic way. They are also commissioned by schools, businesses, and other public entities to enhance and beautify shared communal areas. Sterile spaces go from drab to fab, creating “Instagramable” moments which in turn attracts more patrons, helping organizations elevate their offerings.
Shafer, along with Hayden, who joined Sike Style Industries two years ago, fully understand the importance of branding within their overall strategy. Shafer routinely shares his “Sike Style” creations on social media and even conducts custom spray paint can giveaways for fans via Instagram. Licensing his artwork is also a focus, allowing a project the potential to deliver multiple forms of revenue. “Our digital designs often become posters or T-shirts, letterheads, etc. It's definitely a very conscious thing that we do.”
Another point of focus is giving back. Through the Artist INC program, Shafer mentors new artists about the business side of the trade, ensuring they have the proper skills and knowledge to move their careers forward. “We definitely want to change the narrative,” Shafer notes, referring to artists frequently not being paid their worth.
Recently, strategic partnerships with high-profile brands, especially within professional sports, have allowed Sike Style Industries to solidify into a thriving business, successfully balancing artistic integrity with commercialized work. Projects with the Royals led to opportunities with the Chiefs, via their corporate partners, to commission additional murals around town. Those installations caught the eye of global sports equipment behemoth, Oakley. The company was searching for unique ways to activate their partnership with Patrick Mahomes, initially by adding a mural element to the Arrowhead Pro Shop. That venture led to additional collaborations between Oakley and Sike Style, including posters, point-of-purchase displays that included custom Sike-designed footballs, and even an on-site activation in Tampa Bay the week leading up to the Super Bowl. Both Shafer and Hayden made the trip and interacted with fans while manning the space. For an ascending artist, aligning their brand with the Chiefs’ superstar and one of the world’s biggest companies has been a boon to the future of Sike Style Industries.
Even with all the recent success, however, Shafer remains grounded. “We're just two people with a small building and a small business who’ve come up with a few great ideas. We're growing, we're learning, we're changing constantly.”
The perception of street art has clearly changed as well. Not long ago, creating a mural might get you in trouble. Now, creating one might just get you a new client.