Mitch Kelly, 52, is at a stage in his professional career where he is ready to start giving back to the industry in which he made his name.
“I have a ton of knowledge and at this point in my life, I want to share it,” says Kelly. “Back in the day, my cars were on at least three magazine covers every year, whether it was a truck, motorcycle or hot rod magazine. More recently, a motorcycle that I painted will be appearing on the cover of Ground Pounder magazine. It’s a cinnamon-colored Harley painted with PPG paint and I really like working on bikes lately. We did one Harley that has more than $13,000 worth of paint, with multiple colors, stripes everywhere, including gold leaf—-it’s just really cool stuff.”
It all began 39 years ago when a teenager started to learn the family business to make some walking around money. “When I was 13, my dad told me to tape off some wheels on some vans,” Kelly explained. “He was doing lots of vans back then. In the 1960’s everybody had a van and they wanted graphics on them. He was fast. He’d lay them out, paper them and Scotch Bright them and I learned how to do it all.
The first thing I did was paint wheels. They used to have those old western-style wheels with ribs on them and you’d have to paint between the ribs and color match them to the vehicle. I would do a couple sets of wheels every day and Dad would give me $10-$15 per wheel. So, as a 13-year-old, I was making good money, sometimes $150 per day.”
Tom Kelly didn’t want his son’s future in the paint business. “At one point, my father told me, ‘This is fine and all, but I want you to get a regular job.’ I worked six hours a day in a cabinet shop, but I also stayed on at my dad’s shop. Between the cabinet shop, my dad’s shop, and school, I was putting in 13-hour days. Eventually I went to work with my father full-time in 1978.
“My father is probably the best pinstriper in the world, in my opinion, and many will agree. His talent and his ability to stripe stuff is phenomenal,” Mitch says with evident pride.
“He’s a super artist and he’s very creative. He’s got all my ability in his little pinky. I realized early on that I didn’t want to do pinstripes, murals or hand lettering, so I figured out that I needed to get into the painting side. I learned about as much as I could about two-color toning, fading and graphics to where I could do them at a high level. My father and I are still a team. He’s 72 now and we still work together.”
ABN sat down with Mitch Kelly recently to chronicle his top five projects over the years and the first one he cited was the very first car he painted completely from start to finish while a high school student. “My friend had a 1978 Z-28, and asked ‘would I put some stripes on his car’? I said yeah, but not for free. For $200, I put three-colored stripes around his car for a hot rod look. That was my first success, because it made the cover of Hot Rod magazine. I was still in high school and I got my first cover! I thought to myself, “I must have at least some talent to make the cover of a magazine! It was my first really serious graphic effort and I was so proud.”
Mitch Kelly’s number two project came at age 19. “After a while, I started getting better and better at painting cars. One day, a couple brought in a 1969 Corvette that they wanted candy red. I used a red and gold pearl base with the red candy on top. It came out with a very different effect by just messing around with the colors.
They wanted a silhouette of them together painted on the hood, so we ghosted it in. It looked awesome and the customers loved it. They gave me a $300 tip, which was unheard of way back then! That rocked my world and I realized how important good customer service can be. Meeting deadlines and giving them exactly what they want is crucial, and I learned a lot about it with that Corvette.”
Number three on the Mitch Kelly countdown happened roughly 20 years ago, he said. “One day in 1992, I got a phone call from the people at the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP). At that time, they had a countrywide tour featuring some of the country’s best volleyball players and Miller Lite was their sponsor. They asked me, can you airbrush a mural of a 30-40 foot volleyball player diving for volleyball on the side of a semi-truck? And I told them, yes—we can do that. After I hung up the phone, I turned to my dad and said, ‘Uh, we can do this, right?’ and he said we’ll give it our best shot! We got the job and did an image of Sinjin Smith, who was one of the world’s top volleyball players at that time and they were really happy with it.”
That semi led to a lot of new business on a corporate level, Mitch explained. “After that initial meeting with the people from Miller Lite, things really started happening. It’s totally different from working with customers off the street. For one, my business clients never even come to look at the trucks after they’re finished. They just send the check after seeing it on TV or in publications. We started doing a lot of these semi trailers for the AVP and they let us do the things we do best—our graphics, fading and blending. We worked closely with their designers to make them pop and it’s been a great relationship.”
The fourth notable accomplishment for Kelly is another truck project that came from some of his motorcycle work, he said. “I’ve always loved motorcycles of all kinds and I was racing for a while. So, we were painting a bike one day for a company called Thor Wear and they asked us to bid on a truck job for them. We got the bid and then worked with their designer and it came out great. They loved it! We took it to a big show and it got amazing reviews. The big boss saw it and said, ‘We need to do more of those!’ I’ve done at least 15 trucks for them over the years and at least a total of 50 jobs overall, so it has turned out to be an excellent account.”
This now takes us to the fifth fabulous project performed by Mitch and his crew—another semi for a major brand name. “Fifteen years ago, we got a call from the people from Mazda’s racing team and did a semi for them featuring a Mazda race car on the side and with the logos. When the people from Mazda saw it, they were thrilled. The next call was another car and trailer. They needed it in just three weeks time and it had to be in Texas for a TV commercial. They said we don’t care about the price. It was the biggest project money-wise that I had ever done. We got it done three days early and it led to a bunch of work with Mazda after that.”
For more information about Mitch and his work, go to: www.kellyandsoncrazypainters.com