ST. PETERSBURG — When Jimmy Breen was selected to work on a SHINE mural in 2019, quite a few obstacles stood between him and the tall, blank wall that was his canvas.
The building, 1701 Central, was under construction, and tucked right next to the interstate. A protruding tree branch blocked his path to the structure. Breen and his then-business partner, Anthony Freese, had only one lift, and limited time to wrap up their design before the end of the festival. But Breen kept at it.
“He just had such a positive attitude about things,” said Jenee Priebe, director of the SHINE Mural Festival. “He was the person that really believed anything is possible. If you had a dream, Jimmy would help you get there, no questions asked.”
Breen and Freese folded plenty of good omens into their pink, yellow and turquoise mural: a four-leaf clover. A horseshoe. A penny flipped heads-side-up.
“That was the concept they came up with, was how lucky we are to live in St. Pete,” Priebe said. “And how lucky we are to be alive and do what we get to do.”
Breen died on June 20. He was 37 years old. His family did not want to disclose his cause of death. They have asked people to make donations to the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance in his memory.
Breen’s life was filled with many things he enjoyed doing. He was a prominent local muralist, splashing color on restaurants, businesses and walls around St. Petersburg. He opened his own advertising and design firm while working as an illustrator for big-time musicians and record labels, creating T-shirts and posters for Lizzo, Cardi B, Wu Tang Clan and the Grateful Dead. He carved out time to support the St. Petersburg chapter of Creative Mornings, a monthly breakfast lecture series aimed to unite and inspire local innovators.
“He lived a lot of lives in the short period of time that he had,” said his sister-in-law, Dana Tafelski. “As much as it’s horrible, I think he lived the life that he would have wanted to.”
Breen grew up in Indianapolis and then Florida, said his younger brother Jason Breen. Inspired by the Marvel Comics he bought with his allowance, Breen started drawing at a young age. He was just 19 when he started a T-shirt company called Heartcore, but he quickly earned a spot traveling on the Vans Warped Tour, selling his clothes across the country. Numerous bands took notice.
“People liked his art and they liked his style and they wanted Jimmy Breen designs for themselves,” his brother said.
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Breen tried studying international business at the University of South Florida, but it didn’t stick. According to an interview Breen did with St. Pete Catalyst, a shift came after Fall Out Boy’s first album in 2003. Breen realized the band’s label, Fueled By Ramen, was located on Hillsborough Avenue — the same street where he lived at the time. He walked to the office to introduce himself and left in charge of merchandise production. That job led to later work with Atlantic Records and Warner Music Group.
Breen continued to whip out designs as a freelance illustrator for nearly a decade before deciding to get some formal illustration training. He enrolled in USF St. Petersburg’s graphic design program. That’s where he met Julia, who would become his wife.
He quickly became part of the family, said Tafelski, who is Julia’s sister.
“He would come over and arrange a movie night for all of us,” she said. “He would get snacks from the store or make a big dinner and we’d all eat together.”
Breen loved to travel with his wife and was enamored with their floppy-tongued Shih Tzu, named Lil Uzi Derp. He was known to put on a string of movie trailers and reality TV shows like “90 Day Fiancé.” He enjoyed fine dining, embarking on ice cream runs and battling with his father-in-law to grab the check first.
And he loved starting his days in his hot tub.
“It’s where he came up with a lot of his ideas,” said Paul Rose, Tafelski’s boyfriend and a close friend of Breen’s. “He’d jump into the hot tub and he’d go, ‘Alright, this is what I’m thinking.’”
One of those ideas was Wax & Hive, an illustration studio that Breen built with Freese around 2017 and ran for several years. The team worked out of a storefront next to Chad Mize’s gallery on Ninth Street N.
“He had an idea of making it a presence in the community,” Rose said. “Within a year and a half, it was one of the biggest in-house illustration studios in downtown St. Pete for all the major cool new restaurants and everything.”
While managing Wax & Hive, Breen continued to work for Warner Music Group. By 2017, he’d become a senior illustrator. The Dalai Lama commissioned him to create fliers for the annual Tibet House fundraiser. More recently, Breen traveled to Willie Nelson’s property in Luck, Texas, to create merchandise and art installations for the Luck Reunion.
Breen saved his desk work for during the day and would wobble up on tall lifts to paint walls around town in the early morning or late evening hours. “Make big art” was his mantra, and it showed in his portfolio of murals: A pinup with a half-skull face sprawled outside of No Vacancy. Melting smiley faces hovering above Sunshine Kitty Catfe. Massive floating bread loaves on the side of wholesale bakery Lantmannen Unibake USA, which can be seen from Interstate 275.
“That was just his nature, to be so go go go,” said Tafelski, who also worked with Breen at Wax & Hive. “I think you could tell just by talking to him that he always had a lot going on, and he loved it.”
Even when his days were packed, he made time for the people he cared about.
“He was generous with so many things — with his advice, with his talent, with his time and his ideas,” said Tara Segall, founder of the St. Pete chapter of Creative Mornings, an international collective with over 220 groups.
Segall grabbed coffee with Breen more than six years ago when she was dreaming of starting a local chapter. He was the first speaker she booked, and over the years his connections around Tampa Bay brought in many other speakers.
When he found out that Segall was paying for supplies out of pocket (all Creative Mornings events are free to attend), he pitched setting up a merchandise table. Breen designed and donated T-shirts and artwork to raise funds. It kept the group afloat for years.
“Our story, as special as it feels to us, isn’t that unique,” Segall said. “Jimmy’s wife, Julia, wrote a sweet caption when she announced his passing and she said, ‘Jimmy has a way of making everyone feel special and seen.’ That’s really accurate.”