“I don’t ever want to be too comfortable,” said artist Nick ‘Turbo’ Benson. “I think a little bit of uneasiness or fear is motivating for me.”
On a recent chilly afternoon we met at the South River Arts Studio in South East Atlanta where he has installed one of his most recent murals depicting a red winged blackbird. His work usually features animals, specifically birds and owls. “I guess a lot of the time it’s sort of maximalist and a little baroque,” Benson said of his art. “It’s very dramatic but also kind of pulpy.” Inspired by sci-fi illustration from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, Benson’s art is both retro and futuristic at the same time.
Benson, an Atlanta native, grew up in Inman Park before his family moved to Tucker. After graduating from Druid Hills High School Benson left Atlanta and moved to New York City where he attended the School of Visual Arts. After a couple of years he found he was missing a sense of community and made the decision to transfer to SCAD in Savannah where he studied illustration, graduating in 2009.
“I loved it there, it was a great town to go to college in,” recalled Benson. “I biked everywhere, the beach was 30 minutes away, which was really nice. It was definitely nice to get out of Atlanta and do something different. After a couple of years there, I started to feel ready to leave; it was a pretty small town. But it holds a special place in my heart. I go back at least once a year.”
Benson returned to Atlanta and landed a gig working as an artist at Mellow Mushroom. At the time the company was a rather small operation, a mom-and-pop type of pizza chain that employed Benson and a team of other artists and designers to create murals and sculptures for its stores. During the time that Benson worked at Mellow Mushroom the company grew exponentially and he often would travel to help set up new locations across the southeast. He was given a lot of creative freedom and he enjoyed the travel. “They didn’t seem to know exactly what they were doing, which was good for us. It allowed us a lot of room for experimentation, like when we got to cut a VW in half and install it in a store and put a bar in it.”
However, Benson was ready for something new and ended up moving to Portland, Oregon with a girl he was seeing at the time. Perhaps overconfident in his artistic skills, he had assumed that it would be easy to find fulfilling and creative work, but soon he learned that was not the case. After a year, he moved back to Atlanta where he took a corporate design job to sustain himself.
“I did that for almost five years. It was very frustrating and boring and I wasn’t very good at it, honestly,” he said with a laugh. “I will say it definitely was good to learn skills and how to deal with corporate environments which I really hadn’t done all that much. Mellow Mushroom was anything but a conventional working environment.” During this time Benson developed technical design skills and continued working on his freelance art on the side, showing at local galleries and networking with fellow artists. “I think it energized me to continue to pursue that because I hated the things I worked on while I was at the job.”
During this phase of his life, Benson was living with friends at the Sampson Street Lofts. It was the heyday for artistic creation in that little slice of Atlanta – in the days before the development of Krog Street Market and the BeltLine, the Sampson Street Lofts were positively humming with artists and creatives. There were parties (wild ones!), video shoots, art events, and even the inception of the popular mural festival Forward Warrior which hosted its first two events at Melvin Art Gallery, the space which is now Ladybird. In fact, one of Benson’s earliest personal mural projects was installed there, an owl whose swirling breath was painted by one of Benson’s closest friends and the founder of Forward Warrior, Peter Ferrari.
“I kind of think of that as my first mural ever,” said Benson. Until that time, most of the creative work that Benson had undertaken was created for paying clients and therefore had to meet specific criteria. Working on murals and artwork just because he wanted to, and particularly when he participated in collaborative art experiences such as Forward Warrior, lit a fire in Benson to continue pursuing his own art as a career.
He has been a full time working artist since 2018, and his work includes murals, paintings, and freelance design work. Some notable projects include a long-term partnership for the past seven years with Run The Jewels, a hip-hop duo of Atlanta-based Killer Mike and Brooklyn-based El-P. Benson also recently illustrated a book titled Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know based on a podcast by the same name.
“That was just a trip, just working in the publishing world and seeing all these different avenues, the pipeline that a book like this has to go through. I pretty much got free reign to do whatever I wanted with the artwork. The publishers liked my artwork so much they asked me to do the cover as well, so that’s exciting.”
Benson’s work has run the gamut from standalone murals to corporate design to storytelling through art. At one point after high school he worked at a comic book shop and he considered pursuing a career in graphic novels, but he ultimately decided against it after witnessing professional comic artists struggle and stress as they tried to make a viable living in the field. “I still like telling stories but I try to do it with more of a single image as opposed to a series of images,” said Benson. “I definitely like to give at least an impression of a narrative with each piece, or leave enough blanks that the viewer can come up with their own narrative based on context clues within the piece.”
In recent years, thanks in part to his extensive network of fellow artists in the city, Benson has been able to focus more on creative, personal projects and supplement that work with freelance gigs. It has afforded him the flexibility to continue expanding and challenging himself with new concepts and ideas. While much of what he currently works on is contracted design, he also loves finding opportunities to paint murals like the one at the South River Art Studios. “When you do art on a wall part of the fun is knowing that like with any landscape it’s going to change. It will eventually get painted over, knocked down or something. I think that gives it a sense of rarity knowing that it’s not going to last forever.”
Oh, and have you ever wondered about Benson’s moniker, ‘Turbo’? Turns out that’s a throwback to when he was in high school and would drive to school in his first car, a Volvo 850 Turbo. Though at the time his peers may have referred to him as ‘Turbo’ in an attempt to poke fun, later in college his friends encouraged him to embrace the name. It has since become synonymous with Benson’s work, particularly his murals.
Art has become the only way I know how to make money,” Benson laughed. “But that’s not really why I do it. It’s partially compulsive. There are some feelings about chasing some sort of dragon… it’s always different and that’s part of what can make working for yourself both awesome and stressful. One week I’m on a ladder at a wall spray painting something, and the next week I’m designing a t-shirt or a poster or a logo digitally. It’s always a little different.”
Today, you can often find Benson visiting his girlfriend who works out of a studio space at the South River Art Studios, participating in gallery shows at ABV Gallery and Cat Eye Creative, or drinking and chatting with fellow artists at 97 Estoria in Cabbagetown, a place which Benson considers to be a hub of local creatives. When asked about his favorite piece he has ever worked on, he smirked and told me that his favorite project is whatever he’s about to work on next. As an artist, Benson is compulsive at times and methodical at others. For the past decade he has worked hard to find a balance between art for pleasure and art for money, and in so doing he has established his credibility and reputation as a central figure in Atlanta’s art scene.