Ethan Murrow is a fine artist in every sense of that term. His highly realistic yet often phantasmagorical works—some the height of a two-story building—have been shown from Paris to Los Angeles. He's drawn murals at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and for the offices of Facebook. Murrow's sweeping images are "done with such precision, such sensuality," waxed one critic. Staring at them, "you may feel you're plummeting, Icarus style, from cerulean heights," said another.
You may presume that an artist of Murrow's caliber must work with sable brushes and hand-crushed pigments—but no. Murrow uses Sharpies. Yes, the $4 felt-tip markers you can get at Walmart.
"I started using Sharpies in 2010, and I've been hard at it ever since," Murrow said. The marker, he said, "has a nice luster to it, and great staying power. Best of all, people can relate to it. Even if someone has never been involved in drawing, they can sense what it would feel like to hold that pen."
Actually, chances are you already know. Sharpie markers are integral to American life. Nobody's sure how many are out there, but the company's 2002 estimate put the number at 200 million (roughly two per every American household). Sharpie is probably the most versatile writing instrument in existence, and the fact that it can be used for everything from marking fabric to signing autographs is no small part of its ubiquity. "Sharpies are good for the president of the United States or the president of the PTA," said company chief Howard Heckes in 2006—and he meant that literally.
Sharpie fans have included President George W. Bush, whose markers had The White House stamped on the side. Johnny Carson used Sharpies, and so has Nascar driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and golf legend Arnold Palmer. In 2002, San Francisco 49ers receiver Terrell Owens scored a touchdown, then whipped a Sharpie out of his sock and signed the ball. In fact, many celebs come Sharpie-armed for just this purpose. "I have always enjoyed signing autographs," David Beckham said in 2008, when Sharpie made him a brand ambassador. "I love to use Sharpie markers."
How'd all this get started? Felt-tip markers have actually been around since the early 1900s, and the "Magic Marker" since 1953. But in 1964, Chicago's Sanford Ink Company filled a felt-tip pen with a proprietary, permanent ink that would stick to nearly any surface—and that was, as they say, all she wrote.
These days, Sharpie is part of Newell Brands (which also makes Rubbermaid products and Elmer's Glue). Sharpies now come in 31 colors, and widths from ultra fine to ¾-inch chisel tip. But basic black remains the best-seller.
Just ask Murrow, who'll go through maybe 1,100 Sharpies for one mural. "I'll break off the nib sometimes and run them right out of ink," he said. "I go through them very quickly."
This story first appeared in the July 25, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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