ST. PETERSBURG — He sauntered back about 15 feet away from the wall to look up at the mural, and after a few seconds, confirmed his suspicion: The gecko was too small.
It needed to be larger-than-life. The dark blue reptile had to pop out and get in your face, but not go under the 11-foot, 2-inch bottom limit of the rendering. How was he going to do that?
Cigarette dangling from his lips, he picked up his hard hat and his respirator, grabbed two cans of Montana 94 spray paint, and jumped back on the lift. He'd figure it out.
His ability to paint over his mistakes is only one of the reasons that the Sirata Beach Resort and Conference Center at 5300 Gulf Blvd. in St. Pete Beach hired Derek Donnelly. As part of its $15-million renovations this year, the resort decided to commission a local artist to paint two murals. Despite it not being locally owned anymore, the hotel wants to maintain a connection with the community, said Jeff Abbaticchio, the resort's marketing director.
Texas-based Crescent Real Estate partnered with an Atlanta company to buy the Sirata in February for $108.19 million. The previous owners, the Nicklauses, were a local family.
Construction began late last year, and the 382-room hotel will fully reopen late in October. Donnelly worked for about six months with the Miami-based architects to come up with the mural designs.
The 35-year-old artist, who agreed to do the project for more than $10,000, was born and raised in St. Petersburg. While his dad tended bar for years, he used to play around the beach as a kid. To bring his creativity to the place he grew up in is nothing short of a dream come true.
"It's surreal," said Donnelly, who has been painting professionally for about eight years. "I'm super humbled and really excited."
He painted his first mural at the Sirata last month in the hotel's kids area. It featured baby sea turtles shooting up water.
On Monday, he started his second, which is full of leaves, flowers — pink frangipanis and orange bird of paradise — and a blue gecko. It's on one of the buildings in a two-story wall facing south, in front of an event space used for weddings, bar mitzvahs and such.
Although he's had to flap away a few bugs, Donnelly mostly worked at night, where the Florida heat was not too awful and the pouring rain had usually ceased. He often has to repaint over his mistakes, until he gets the details right. He used more than 70 bottles of spray paint.
The hotel hopes the murals will be a great backdrop for photos, Abbaticchio said.
"It's yet one more thing that we can boast in St. Pete Beach that other destinations can't," he said.
Every single tweet about the murals and Instagram selfie in front of them will make Donnelly smile, knowing he made others smile.
That's what street art is really about: the residual love.