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The Man Behind Kensington's Sidewalk Paintings

Bernard Muhammad paints a picture of Benny Brunetto's home. July 14, 2014.
Nicholas McVicker
Bernard Muhammad paints a picture of Benny Brunetto's home. July 14, 2014.
The Man Behind Kensington’s Sidewalk Paintings
The Man Behind Kensington's Sidewalk Paintings
Kensington's sidewalks are a patchwork of brightly colored paintings and they're all the work of one man: Bernard Muhammad.

In just a few blocks along Adams Avenue, you see them everywhere. There's a cup and saucer outside Kensington Café. A frowning fluffy white dog at the corner of Van Dyke Avenue. A lighthouse sitting on an ocean bluff.

These brightly colored pictures are painted right on the sidewalk, and they're all the work of one man: Bernard Muhammad.

"I'm completely, 100 percent self-taught, I earn while I learn. That's my model," Bernard, 60, said on a recent afternoon in Kensington Park. (He goes only by his first name because he worries the name Muhammad will scare people off.)

We want to hear from you: What makes your neighborhood stand out?

As you'll see, his story is in some ways a sad one. But he's also created a trend that is unique to the Kensington-Talmadge neighborhoods. He lives far away, down in Chula Vista, but he's made his mark on the walkable streets of this upscale community with his doormat-sized pictures on the sidewalk.

The story of the paintings starts way back, 40 years ago, when Bernard was in college at San Diego State.

"I'm trying to work my way through college and having a hard time," he said. "I saw my roommates coming home emptying their pockets out on the bed with bundles of crinkled up dollar bills."

His roommates were going door to door offering to spray paint people's address numbers onto their curbs. Bernard joined them, and soon was using the fees to make ends meet between other jobs.

Then he made a mistake. Or maybe it was fate.


"I was waiting for a bus, left the curb kit at the bus stop and went home," he said. "I came back to get it and it was gone."

Without his curb kit, Bernard improvised, taking an old paintbrush and some paint he found in a dumpster and offering to hand paint residents' curb numbers.

"First it was so terrible, I probably charged people $1.50 for them," he recalled. "But when I earned enough money to get my curb kit back, I became efficient at doing them and saw an opportunity to charge more and earn more money by offering a hand-painted custom sign."

It grew from there. One day, someone asked him to paint a palm tree with his street number.

"I said, well, I never did any actual painting," he said. "But I painted a little palm tree. Then I started getting requests from more neighbors for other things, like a sunburst was one of them. So now I'm thinking art and trying to be creative and having fun with it."

Then Bernard scaled up. He knocked on the door of Benny Brunetto, who owns a large stone house on the corner of Adams Avenue and North Talmadge Drive.

"One day we were at home and we got a knock on the door and it was Bernard, and he told us that he'd like to paint a picture of our house on the sidewalk," Brunetto said. "I was a little skeptical because we'd never seen this done in our neighborhood. So Bernard told me that he'll paint it and if we don't like it, we don't have to pay for it. So, I say, that seemed fair enough."

Bernard began what has now become his method. He sketched the house on paper, then transferred the sketch onto a base layer of paint on the sidewalk. He took out a tub of different colored paints, plopped down a beat-up seat cushion to protect his knees and began to color it in.

"I'd put the blue sky down first, and then I'll work on the roof of the house, then the frame of the house," he said.

Brunetto checked on Bernard every hour as he worked.

"I thought to myself, it doesn't look too good, so I don't think I'm going to have to be paying for this painting," Brunetto recalled. "But little by little it really started coming in and I was very happy with the results."

From then on, Bernard specialized in painting portraits of homes on the sidewalks in front of the homes. It seems like an odd idea, but he said it fits the neighborhood.

"There are two bedroom homes that sell for about $1 million, so it's a certain kind of client that would appreciate art," he said. "It's the type of neighborhood this is, that the people are walking their dogs, pushing strollers with their babies. Without Kensington and the type of neighborhood this is, it would have never happened."

A Bernard Muhammad painting of a house on the sidewalk in front of the house. July 14, 2014.
Nicholas McVicker
A Bernard Muhammad painting of a house on the sidewalk in front of the house. July 14, 2014.

He'll also add touches like family pets, which sometimes look more like rudimentary cartoons. Brunetto calls Bernard's style "folk art," which seems to fit.

And Bernard has been welcomed by the neighborhood. His paintings are on city sidewalks, which might technically require a permit, but both a council district representative and the head of the Kensington-Talmadge Planning Group said nobody has complained.

Bernard sometimes goes door to door to sell his services, but said he relies mostly on word-of-mouth advertising. He now charges $100 to $500 for a painting, and might take a day or more to finish a complicated one.

"I pull the neighbors from next door out of their homes, that's when I know I've got them," he said. "They come out of their house and take a look at it, once they see it, they're usually sold at that point."

Sold on an idea that has spread to so many sidewalk patches, it's become part of the fabric of the neighborhood.

But recently, Bernard has been having some trouble. He's collected money to do a few paintings or touch up his old work, and then hasn't shown up for the job. Brunetto's painting was one of those neglected touch-up jobs.

"I have a mortgage, I have to choose between getting back to folks, back to folks who've already paid, and having my electricity turned off," Bernard told him.

"How much are you going to charge to just come back and finish it?" Brunetto asked.

"You gave me $50 to do $50 worth of work, and I'll do that," Bernard said. "If you want me to completely redo it, I can do that, too."

"But you've gotta get it done," Brunetto said.

"I'm going to come back tomorrow," Bernard replied. And he did return later to finish the job.

Bernard's only source of income these days is his painting, which he uses to support his wife, four kids and nine grand kids. But his car is broken down, he's been having family health issues, and he said he may need some help with his business.

"I'm looking for a partner, someone young who can help me run the business," he said. "My business is having growing pains, and I'm aging myself, so I don't have the energy and the enthusiasm that I had before."