By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
Shawn Fitzwater was confident his latest mural wouldn’t hang around very long.
“If I got in trouble over it,” the owner of Fitz Hand Painted Signs said, “I could easily cover it up.”
But a funny thing happened on the painter’s trip to buy whitewash. The feel-good message of his mural – We Are All In This Together – struck home and, for now, the mural has a home, not just on a building in downtown Homewood but on T-shirts that provide food for health care workers.
The painter lives in West Homewood with his wife, Shannon, an accountant at Borland Benefield in Homewood, and their three sons – 14-year-old Gabriel, 8-year-old Noah and 20-month-old Fin.
Born in Indiana, “Fitz,” as he’s often called, moved to Texas and then Mississippi before putting down roots in Homewood from middle school on. He developed a knack for drawing at age 6 or 7.
“I never really was into painting until a couple years ago,” Fitzwater recalled. “I decided to paint a mural in my kids’ room and it took me to where I enjoyed painting, the painting part of it with a paintbrush. Prior to that, it had always been just sketching things in a sketchbook with a pencil on paper.”
Fitzwater was a land surveyor for 20 years before he “burned out” on that. His first solo venture was a bike advertising business, where he pulled an A-framed, wheeled sign behind a bicycle.
Fitz chronicled his progress on the mural in his children’s room on Facebook. A business owner saw it and approached him about painting his logo at his store. That job led to more jobs and he realized, “I’m onto something here.”
Like many small business owners, Fitzwater has seen potential clients hit the pause button as the economy ground to a halt because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Beyond his bottom line, he wanted to inspire others.
“What can I do to give back through my business or give back through my skill set?” the 41-year-old wondered. “I thought, ‘What if I just paint a message somewhere, a positive message, maybe an uplifting thing for people to see and put a smile on people’s faces?’”
And the painter knew just where he wanted to put his message, on the north side of the building that houses Battle Republic, a boxing-inspired gym. He had talked previously with the business owners about using their bare white outside wall as a canvas.
However, this rendering would be an unsanctioned job, without their permission.
“I kind of know those people,” Fitzwater said. “Once they figure out it’s me (and), if they’re mad, I’ll cover it up.”
But the emotion evoked by the mural wasn’t anger. Fitzwater’s work, done under cloak of darkness and secrecy, brought a smile to the faces of the business owners, even if they worried about their landlord’s reaction.
Lindsey Miller, an owner of Battle Republic, said she was lounging at a lake when she got word of the mural from one of her coaches. He snapped a picture and texted it to her.
“I was, like, panicking a little bit because I didn’t want the landlord to think we did it and get upset,” she said. “My first instinct was definitely, ‘This is so freakin’ cool,’ but I really hope nobody gets upset.”
Miller alerted her landlord, Pronce Acker of Mountain Brook, explained that it wasn’t her doing and asked, “Can we keep it?”
“He was like, ‘Oh man, this is such a great message,’” the gym owner recounted. “Once he was cool with it, I kind of got to where I could appreciate it a little bit more than be worried about it.”
A Spark Ignited
The inspiration of Fitzwater’s mural hasn’t stopped at the wall. Vulcan Apparel Co. owners Michael Whitten and Drew Binkley have carried it further.
“Obviously with everything going on, it was just kind of an uplifting moment,” Binkley said. “Honestly, every time I’ve passed, it’s kind of been one of those things that you pass by and it kind of lifts your spirits a little bit.”
The business partners decided to lift more spirits by putting Fitzwater’s alternating black and white block text on T-shirts.
“What better way to combine both of our efforts and start a campaign,” Binkley said. “We can let people wear that mural and have that good feeling when they’re wearing it, and maybe help somebody that’s maybe going through a tough time.”
The shirts have done more than just uplift. Vulcan Apparel sold the white T-shirts, giving all the money raised to BHMcares to provide food for health care workers.
“We haven’t heard the final number,” Binkley said, “but I’m pretty sure we ended at 255 (shirts sold). That’s just over $3,300 in money raised for bhmcares.com. It has exceeded our expectations.”
The campaign has fed medical workers through multiple restaurants, providing a boost to those struggling businesses. And while that campaign ended April 17, another one could launch if demand prompts it.
“I think there has to be at least 10 or 20 shirts committed to purchasing before they will actually do the campaign,” Binkley said. “Otherwise it’s just not worth their time and money.”
Fitzwater said he has felt the love from his work, which now bears his @FitzSigns signature.
“Just knowing that it is helping people,” he said. “To see people post and tag the mural (online) so many times during the day and then just put messages like, ‘Whoever did this, thank you so much.’ That made me smile.
“And with the T-shirt sales and the campaign, that’s probably right up there with it. That’s what it’s meant for and that’s what means a lot to me.”
An earlier version of this story was published on Alabama News Center.