In this occasional series, the Daily News offers a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of folks who work a variety of jobs.
OKALOOSA ISLAND — Paul Forakis stood in his studio, a roughly 4 X 5 foot space cordoned off in the corner of the Surf Style store on Okaloosa Island.
Above him, rows and rows of fantastical fluorescent T-shirt designs took up every square inch of wall space. The designs ranged from alligators riding surfboards to octopuses and jellyfish holding hands, with the occasional superhero and gymnast in between.
He held an airbrush tightly in his hand as he glanced at his phone every so often, carefully drawing out the lines on the faces of a cartoon character that was his next work of art, a T-shirt stretched over a black board.
“The key is to make it look dramatic,” he said as a splattering of hot pink fanned out of the airbrush. “Make it look like a silhouette and put it against a backdrop and it just pops.”
“If you wanted to survive, you had to get good”
Forakis has been airbrushing on the Emerald Coast since 1980. Originally from Wisconsin, Forakis said his family would vacation in the area every spring and summer when he was little. He remembers the Fort Walton Beach strip being “the place to be,” and that’s where he first fell in love with airbrush design.
“We would come to the big city of Fort Walton Beach,” he said. “And there were airbrushers in every place, and it was like being in Disney World in the summertime. I would see those people painting KISS faces and I was like man, how did they do that?”
After his family moved to the area in 1977 and bought several local shops, Forakis said he set his sights on being an airbrush artist. But his goal was a lofty one back then—airbrushers were on every corner, and they were competitive.
“The other airbrushers didn’t want you to learn their craft,” he said. “The less competition, the better … back at that time, there was a lot of backstabbing.”
But Forakis persevered, setting up shop with a “crappy” air compressor and an early model airbrush in his garage with a buddy and painting until his fingers were stained.
“If you wanted to survive, you had to get good,” he said. “I kept painting and painting and painting.”
“Beach themes around here are our number one seller”
Today, Forakis estimates there are only about 15 professional airbrush artists in the area. The “heyday” of airbrush artistry is gone for now, but Forakis continues to pump out thousands of designs from his tiny shop-within-a-store every summer.
He said the key to selling a lot of airbrush is to know your customer.
“Come up with an idea, something you know will sell,” he said. “Beach themes around here are our number one seller. And then there are always trends that come up. For instance, ‘The Punisher,’ the last couple of years, that one has come on really strong. Along with the superhero stuff, because of all the movies.”
He said he sells mostly to girls and kids, and does a lot of business when there are cheerleading competitions at the nearby Emerald Coast Convention Center. But he said one of his most popular designs is a silhouette of a gymnast doing a handstand on a balance beam, with a fluorescent sunset behind her.
Forakis said he also does custom designs, and has gotten some strange requests over the years.
“One of the weirdest things I’ve painted, there was a woman who was really proud of her big butt, and she wanted the design of the boy and the girl holding hands (facing away) but she wanted me to do her butt big,” he said. “I also do a lot of secondary character fan art, and some darker stuff for my own personal self.”
“The coolest thing out there”
Forakis said that unlike when he first got into airbrushing, he welcomes anybody with a steady hand and an eye for art to try out the field. He’s mentored people that have come up through the business and are now his friends.
“A great airbrush artist is one that can hold down shop and take care of everything that comes up,” he said. “A great artist has no attitude. Back in the day, everyone thought they were better than one another … there’s no attitude here. I know there’s always somebody better than me.”
Forakis said one of the things he loves most about his job, besides the artistry, is getting to know customers.
“What do I love about my job? It’s the people. Interacting with the people,” he said. “Sometimes they come year after year. They’ll come up to me and the daughter or son will be 13 or 14 and they’ll say, ‘You’ve been doing T-shirts for her since she was eight years old.’ ”
He also enjoys seeing little kids’ faces light up the same way his own face used to when he was younger and enamored with the bright, vibrant designs.
“I take it for granted that it does have an impact,” he said. “Especially the young ones, they really love their airbrush T-shirts. I remember when I was a kid, I thought it was the coolest thing out there.”