When Marcus Zotter prepares for a live painting performance, he sets up a 4-foot-wide triangular easel—large enough to fit a 48-by-60-inch pure cotton canvas—and starts sketching his initial outline. “I like to go big with my artwork,” says the Pennsylvania transplant. Clad in his characteristic uniform of paint-covered slacks and Nike Air Max sneakers, the artist frequently works at charity events with hundreds of spectators gathered around him as he churns out graffiti-inspired portraits in two hours or less. Usually, the pieces are of prominent figures like Salvador Dalí or Albert Einstein. “I’ve learned how powerful a painted image can be, how it can support lives and do more than just hang on a wall,” says Zotter. “No matter how many times I paint live, I always get butterflies, especially when I’m doing a piece for a charity auction.”
Zotter has worked with nearly a dozen local nonprofit groups, which commission him to paint pieces on-the-spot that then get auctioned for thousands of dollars during the same event. One work he’s particularly proud of is a painting of a battered American flag with two silhouetted soldiers. It was done for the Bonita Springs Honor Ball, an event that benefits the local chapter of the Honor Flight Network. The nonprofit sends U.S. veterans to the capital to see memorials that commemorate the wars they fought in. Through them, his grandfather, a 103-year-old WWII veteran, was able to go see the Washington Memorial.
Before arriving in Naples, Zotter honed his style—a mashup of classic and urban techniques—as a sculpture student at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Founded in 1805, PAFA is the oldest functioning art school and art museum in the country. Zotter mastered traditional methods in his sculpting, drawing and painting classes, but he was most inspired during plein air landscape workshops in boroughs throughout the city. “Though I was learning traditional techniques at school, I was heavily influenced by my surroundings in Philadelphia, especially the abundance of graffiti murals,” he says. “It was like learning how to navigate two different worlds at the same time.” That blend of street art and formal training honed the beginnings of his signature style, which is edgy and bold yet sophisticated.
When he graduated in 2012, Zotter planned to move to a bigger art hub. He came to Naples, where he has family, as a stopover on his way to Miami. But soon after, he met his wife, Beatriz, and his plans to leave naturally dissolved. “A snowball of amazing things came together,” he explains.
Beatriz introduced Zotter to a few key players in the local art scene, and he got a job at Gallery One on Fifth Avenue. His big break came when gallery director Frank Russen commissioned him to create the poster art for the Naples International Film Festival, a project that put his art in front of locals. His graphic paintings stood out and started to catch people’s attention.
But it was the restaurant and bar 7th Avenue Social that catapulted his career. That’s where he first ventured into live painting. One day when a band was playing, Zotter got the idea to draw something on the 8-by-16-foot black chalkboard wall that frames the back of the restaurant, while the musicians performed. The idea took off, and it became the bar’s most popular event. Twice a month, local bands would perform while Zotter did portraits of legends like Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin. “I painted until the place closed down,” he laughs.
In recent years, Zotter has been making his mark on Naples’ changing urban landscape, too. In 2018, he was the first artist to paint a mural in the Bayshore District, the previously dicey hood that’s being turned into an arts district. The mural of a mermaid floating in diamonds on the side of A. Jaron Fine Jewelry was his first. He then painted a floral mural for the Gardenia House waterfront hotel. “The Bayshore Arts District has been called that for years and yet there were no murals, no galleries, no art until I arrived with these back-to-back murals that shocked the street in a very positive way,” Zotter says. At first, the works caused a stir for not meeting certain codes, but the neighborhood rallied to get 900 signatures petitioning in favor of keeping the murals. “I was thanked by many saying the district needed this art,” he says.
Today, Zotter works mostly out of his North Naples home. He also has a garage studio off Oaks Boulevard with 18-foot ceilings and enough space to comfortably fit a Volkswagen van. That’s where he works on commissions he can’t fit in his home studio—large-scale sculptures or graffiti projects with big canvases, doors, tables, cars—or whatever presents itself to be painted. “It’s a much bigger space to stretch my legs and get inspired,” Zotter says.
He also wants to inspire the next generation of artists. Soon, he’ll start hosting spray painting workshops for kids. He wants to show them it’s possible to live as a full-time artist. “My goal is to get a brush in their hands and get kids interested,” he says.
It’s just another way Zotter aims to pay it forward—to give back to the community that his given so much to him. “You have to give to get,” he says.