Yuri Fatkulin, the artful Russian muralist of Canton, has never seen a wall he didn't like.
He's painted pasta on the wall at Mangia Mangia, blue crabs and jellyfish in a blue sea at Chris' Seafood, waterfront thugs for the Gin Mill, an Oriole and a Raven at Blackbird's, a Natty Boh-style logo at Nacho Mama's.
And, in Little Italy, he's painted Florentine lutenists at Germano Fabiani's Trattoria, the landscape of Southern Italy at Rocco Gargano's Capriccio and the portrait of the mustachioed Luigi Petti at Luigi Petti's.
Right now he's finishing up the salmon-colored Blues Brothers fish playing a saxophone on the Leakin Street side of Bar Harbor, a new jazz drinkery on Essex Street a block off Boston.
"He's been dying to paint this wall," says Tara Sopher, an artist who owns Bar Harbor with partner Ann Reddish, who's behind the bar on this day. "He loves to paint on brick. He was out there in the dark painting."
Once Fatkulin sees a naked wall you can hardly hold him back.
"He wants to paint all the walls in Baltimore," Sopher says.
He painted an impromptu art nouveau signature sign inside Bar Harbor while waiting to get started on the jazzy outdoor fish.
"I like painting walls," Fatkulin says, simply. "I like to paint on canvas, too."
He's a figurative painter who's done a lot of portraits. But he finds it easier to make money with murals than easel paintings. His prices are flexible with the size of the wall. A painting might take from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. The Chris' Seafood blue crabs, at Montford and Fait avenues, took a week. He basically volunteered to paint the Bar Harbor mural because he likes the idea of a jazz bar in Canton.
"I love jazz," he says.
He's a lean, good-looking guy, 41, with slightly world-weary eyes. His basic tools are acrylic paints, brushes and a two-story ladder. On his ladder, he's as agile as a Russian acrobat -- or Russian banker.
His mural style in Canton might be called comic realism, although the Mangia Mangia wall at the Luzerne Avenue Safeway entrance -- complete with a fork and garden hose spaghetti -- could be termed pop expressionism.
He's a very well-trained artist. He painted his first mural when he was 14 years old, on a Russian restaurant wall in a small town on the Volga River.
"A Russian scene with birch trees and stuff," he says.
About the same time he began his formal study of art at the prep school of the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. The renowned Russian art school was founded in 1757, just three decades after the death of the westernizing czar Peter the Great.
"You have to compete to get in," he says. "Around 800 or 900 people are competing for maybe 20-30 openings."
Once in the school, you're required to work much harder than at American art schools, Fatkulin says. A typical day ran from 9 o'clock in the morning to about 9 in the evening.
"Four hours of painting every day," he says. "Two hours of drawing, two hours of lectures on philosophy, history, art history, then anatomy classes, and then evening drawing and lectures. It's way more serious than school here."
This rigorous curriculum produces artists strong in fundamental skills, much as the vaunted Soviet chess system turned out methodical grandmasters.
To complete the program takes six years, Fatkulin says, including studio work with a professor on a diploma project.
He didn't quite make it. In what was then Leningrad, in what was then the Soviet Union, he met an American woman who was studying there. She became his wife, ex-wife now.
"When we were married they kicked me out of school, from my last year," he says.
In 1981, he and his wife arrived in Berkeley, Calif., across the bay from San Francisco. They came to Baltimore in 1984.
"I'd like to go back to San Francisco someday," he says, maybe after he runs out of walls in Baltimore.
He was pleased a couple of years ago when he returned to St. Petersburg and found he was still remembered at the art academy. He had been a prize-winning student. He likes his native land but he thinks making a living in the new Russia is very hard.
"Legally," he adds. "They make plenty of money semi-legally."
In Baltimore, he pretty much supports himself with his mural art. "Trying to," he says, laconically. "I'm doing pretty good, actually."
Most of his jobs come to him by word of mouth. He thinks Baltimore's a small enough town for everybody to know one another.
"People know me," he says. "That's how I get my jobs."
His first Baltimore assignment was the restoration of the murals in the Belvedere Hotel's John Eager Howard Room in 1985. He did designs for the Theater of Nations and some other projects with P.W. Feats. He painted a portrait of Kathleen Turner for John Waters' movie, "Serial Mom."
He slowly began moving south and east toward Canton as neighborhood bars there began upgrading their images. Bars like Bar Harbor, which used to be the Essex Street Cafe.
"Restaurant owners, they pay more attention to what the bars and restaurants look like inside the last few years," Fatkulin explains, "so they start to pay attention to what they look like outside."
He does like to brush paint directly on the bricks of the walls he paints, unlike many painters who paint on panels in their studio, hang them up and call them murals.
"It's hard, but I like the way it looks," he says. "The wall texture gives character to the painting."
He seals each mural with a graffiti-proof varnish, which ensures they'll last a long time.
Perhaps long enough to serve as ghostly memorials to late 20th century Canton, much as a faded sign hovering over the square in nearby Fells Point still reminds us to "Vote No on Prohibition."
Pub Date: 11/09/98