Marcus Billingsley is living his dream

The featured artist at this weekend's Scrawl 15 didn't set out to be a muralist, but his colorful, large-scale portraits are now popping up all over the city

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Marcus Billingsley in front of the mural he painted on the MadLab building Downtown.

Marcus Billingsley first participated in Urban Scrawl in 2019, which took him out of his comfort zone in a few ways. For one, Billingsley considers himself an illustrator and a portrait artist, and working on a 4-feet-by-8-feet piece alongside other muralists forced him to experiment with scale in a way he hadn’t previously. “That was a really big, big moment for me,” he said. 

Plus, while Billingsley worked on his painting — a self-portrait integrated with a skull — others were watching, and not from a distance.  

“I was hearing them breathe, hearing them change the cadence of their breath sometimes. It's like, ‘Oh, there's an update on how they feel,’” Billingsley said. “People would stop me and be like, ‘Hey, what are you doing? What's it about? I like it. It's doing something to me, and I don't understand why.’ … There's value in that, and I think it gives a lot of the artists that participate a really good confidence boost that you need. A lot of these people spend time by themselves creating within their own environment, and in order to grow, I believe that you need to be put in situations like that.” 

For the 15th iteration of the mural event, which now goes by Scrawl, Billingsley will return as the featured artist among 54 total artists (including 15 Scrawl newcomers), who will create mobile murals at 400 Square in Franklinton on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 28 and 29.

After graduating from Cleveland School of the Arts, Billingsley moved to Columbus in 2013 to attend CCAD and stuck around after graduation, though he wasn’t immediately interested in murals. But after connecting with CCAD alumni and other local artists, he began to see the appeal. “These people could work small, but they could also work in massive size and impact communities,” he said. “That's more than just drawing a pretty picture.”

Marcus Billingsley outside the mural he painted on MadLab's building  on Third Street Downtown.

Now, Billingsley might be best known as a muralist, having recently completed colorful, large-scale work on the side of the Third Way Café building in Westgate (alongside artists Lucie Shearer and Thom Glick), as well as a freshly finished mural collaboration with Jen Wrubleski on the exterior of MadLab’s theater Downtown on Third Street.  

The Third Way mural again features Billingsley's own visage. “I use myself in a lot of my work because I do want to tell stories of Black men, and I'm the easiest Black male I have available. I'm like, ‘I need a Black face. OK, here's one right here,’” Billingsley said, laughing. “It drives the message home, because there's a lot of people that look like me, and there's a lot of people whose stories are similar to mine.”

The MadLab mural, a partnership between the theater and Catalyst Columbus, features a trippy, magical scene by Wrubleski on the front of the building, complete with a two-headed pink bunny, sunflowers and portals to other worlds. On the side, Billingsley used the same color palette but with different emphases (including lots of green, Billingsley’s favorite color) to create several faces making different expressions that call back to the wide array of emotions portrayed in MadLab's theater productions.

While the people depicted came from semi-random image searches, they’re also familiar to Billingsley. “I think that's why they jumped out to me, honestly. A lot of them were like, ‘I feel like I know this person,’” he said, pointing to the various faces on the mural. “I like to think that all of these expressions relate back to me. They’re emotions I have: weariness, anxiety, melancholy.”

Marcus Billingsley's poster for Scrawl 15

For his Scrawl 15 painting, Billingsley has certain colors in mind, and he might make it a companion piece to the poster he made for the event, which depicts a boy holding (or perhaps tossing) the Earth with his hands. “That has a lot of symbolism, and it kind of relates back to my childhood in Cleveland and being a young Black child,” he said.  

Reflecting on the honor of being named the featured artist at Scrawl, Billingsley said it has helped to ward off imposter syndrome. “It's one of the many affirmations I’ve had recently that tells me I'm actually doing this. It's real. I am an artist,” he said. “It's been my dream forever, and I've been doing it for a while, but recently, I'm like, ‘Oh, you're living your dream.'”