Artist, Jess Mudgett, lives full-time in his Four Wheel Camper traveling and creating tattoo-style murals for homeowners and businesses throughout the American West. Art may be his passion, but absolute freedom is his true calling.
The concept of chasing freedom and adventure in a camper, van or really anything with wheels has become an idea virus in our culture. What’s not often spoken of are those who either need to live in a vehicle or lack better options. That situation can arise through adversity or just the realities of being young and unestablished in a world with spiraling costs for basic necessities. Making one’s way in the world has never been easy, and it’s not getting any easier.
A few years ago, Jess Mudgett found himself in the crosshairs of a difficult life choice. He was depressed and miserable with a desk job and living in an expensive apartment. He couldn’t afford to quit, but he couldn’t stand to stay either. Believing in himself and trusting the future, he made the difficult decision to live in his car and hit the road. This lifestyle wasn’t his first choice, but he felt strongly that it was the best option to regain his freedom and chase his dreams.
Today, Jess Mudgett is a celebrated mural artist with a bold style that keeps his client’s work flowing from town to town, city to city, and state to state. Through the Four Wheel Campers ambassador program, he’s stepped up to a truck and camper allowing him to further achieve his entrepreneurial and artistic vision. Even with his growing success, absolute freedom remains his core calling. The endless places he gets to see. The unlimited experiences he gets to enjoy. The incredible people he gets to meet.
Take in Jess’s incredible artistic vision and murals, and then read his even more amazing journey. This is one artist we’ll need to keep tabs on as his future unfolds.
Above: Jess painting a mural at the new Four Wheel Camper factory
Tell us the story of how your life, creative work, and entrepreneurial spirit crossed with the idea of living in a truck, and later a truck and camper.
It just kind of happened on its own. Life just presented itself this way. Ultimately, living on the road was one of my only options. I needed to save money.
You know how expensive things are these days. I couldn’t really afford to live somewhere, pay rent, and save money at the same time. I wasn’t making the kind of income to do that. I had to start thinking creatively about how I was going to save money.
I was very fortunate to become a Four Wheel Camper ambassador. In trade for a discount on a new Four Wheel Camper, I painted a big mural at their headquarters. I told them I’d be living in the camper full-time and how I really appreciated the support.
It makes the most sense in my life to be able to travel, work and save money. Living on the road wasn’t a choice I wanted, but rather a means to an end for the time being. One day I hope to have saved enough money to purchase a property.
Was going full-time on the road entirely a financial decision?
Yes. First and foremost, it was a financial decision. I do love being on the road and I love this lifestyle. But it was scary in the beginning. It’s not like I had a home and income and decided to live on the road. I was living in my car already. I thought I would continue down that road and try to get a truck and camper. Now I feel like I’m in a house compared to what I was in before.
How would you describe your lifestyle of travel, creative work, and making a living?
I’m on the road full-time; working, getting opportunities to paint walls in different states and cities, and connecting with people through that. I’ve been really fortunate to have people who want to work with me. It keeps fueling my drive to travel more, to see the country more, and continue to live in my truck and camper.
When I’m on the road, I make the most money because I’m out meeting new people and getting to paint walls whether it’s an interior wall at someone’s house or a business like a coffee shop or brewery. It’s been really fun.
I keep my overhead low. I’m not paying rent. Of course, I still have to pay for food, fuel, and the occasional oil change. But that’s not a $1,500 a month rent payment to be stagnate in an apartment someplace. That was hell for me. I was so depressed just giving money away each month to some guy to let me have a room in some city. Man, I’m pretty happy that I chose the route I did, at least for now.
It sounds like you being in your truck and camper, traveling and painting was meant to be. Is that a fair statement?
There are ups and downs to it. It’s not something that I really fantasized about. It kind of just happened. I lived in a Subaru Outback for like a year. That was hard. Then I was fortunate enough to hone in on what I wanted to do with myself and work with specific companies to get where I am today. It was intentional to be where I am. Life worked out well. Anything can happen.
You have a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Art Institute in Portland, Oregon, and have a resume that includes graphic design jobs and internships with companies including Smith Optics and NHS skateboards. At what point did you decide not to work for a company and go out on your own?
I was so depressed when I was living that life. I thought that’s what I wanted for a long time going through school. I thought a design job was the end game. A cushy desk job just wasn’t for me. I was getting fired from jobs and wasn’t good at having someone above me telling me what to do all the time. I couldn’t take it. That wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t my purpose in life to work for a company from 8 to 5 at a desk. There’s so much more to life than that.
Once I was my own boss, my life switched for the better. I was making like $20,000 a year for five years and living in my car; just scraping by. It never felt like a sacrifice. It felt like freedom because I owned my time. I think that’s priceless.
I feel like a lot of people aren’t willing to take the necessary steps that it takes to do something different. It’s really scary. I don’t think a lot of people are willing to move their stuff to a storage unit and live in their car. I was fortunate enough to have good guidance and the right people in my life to help me out.
Has your Four Wheel Camper become home to you?
Oh, 100-percent. I usually don’t sleep in anything else. When I’m at my parent’s house, I’ll just sleep outside in my truck camper. I’ve gotten so used to it. It’s where I sleep the best. It’s rare when I don’t sleep in it. It slowly has become my home.
I know what you mean. It’s a funny thing about owning a camper. You have to tell people when you visit that you’d rather stay in your camper than the nice guest room they’ve prepared for you.
Yeah. It always gets awkward. They’ll say, “What do you mean you don’t want to stay with us?” And I’ll answer, “The camper is my home” to which they reply, “Okay, well, the doors unlocked.”
I know how passionate you are about tattoos and I know how passionate you are about art. Have you tattooed your camper? Is it illustrated anywhere?
Actually, it’s not. I like to paint for other people. I struggle with putting my own art on my own stuff. I opt out on doing that. I sure like to paint other people’s campers.
The camper is my home, so I do a lot of work in there. It’s a safe little box. I can lock the door and put the heat on. I can be anywhere. I really enjoy how comfy it is. It’s a creative space with everything I could want.
Where do you keep your painting supplies?
I keep my supplies in little military containers and put them in the big drawer. I keep it all in the same area. Right now, in my truck’s back seat, I have a snowboard, surfboard, and skateboard. I travel pretty light.
Above: Photo of Jess by @bloodknots
I read that you grew up obsessed with skateboarding. What is that part of your life about?
Being outside in general has been an important part of my life; fishing, hiking, camping, and running around. I was never inside watching TV. I had an outdoor-influenced childhood and it stuck with me. That’s why his lifestyle works so well for me.
Riding boards has been a big love of mine. It’s where I met most of my friends. Snowboarding, skating, and surfing are big parts of my life, so the boards travel along with me as well.
I don’t skate as much as I used to and have been playing guitar more than anything lately. It’s important to keep moving. When you quit moving, things go downhill. I just try to keep moving.
Obviously, art is a huge part of the snowboard, skateboard, and surfboard culture.
Right. It all kind of coincides. All the graphics on skateboards and snowboards were inspiring to me growing up. That was part of my childhood to adulthood experience.
Above: Jess was a part of Range Finder, a documentary film about the lives of professional snowboarders, photo by @bloodknots.
Where did your India ink tattoo style come from?
There was a skate shop growing up in my little town that was next to the tattoo shop. I bounced back and forth between the two shops a lot as a kid watching tattoo artists work. That was a big influence, as were the materials they used to paint. That’s where my tattoo style came from.
I was also really inspired by the west. I draw things I am inspired by or want to engage in life. Ideas and things that inspire me throughout my days, or being out at a ranch. I try to keep that fire lit. Sometimes I want to draw and sometimes I don’t. It kind of comes and goes. I am always super thankful when I’m there.
Above: Jess Mudgett’s mural at Yeti headquarters
When did you realize you could make ends meet with your art?
When I left the internship was when things started to change for me. That’s when I got my own clients. It wasn’t much, but it was something and it snowballed. I thought to myself, “I can make money on my own. This is the way to go. I own my time. I can work when I want to.” I realized I could make money on my own. I love that.
I started making a little income here and there, doing my graphics, and working for companies. I thought to myself, “There’s something here.” So I stayed down that path; working for myself instead of a corporation. I love the lifestyle it creates. I’m probably making less money than I would be working for a company, but then they own you. I don’t want that.
Some people are okay with being stable and getting that paycheck every two weeks. I get it if you have kids and a wife. My lifestyle wouldn’t work with that. I am just enjoying the time I have for what I’m doing right now. I don’t want it to last forever. I don’t want to live in my truck and camper forever. I am enjoying the days I have doing this. I’m sure one day I will have a wife and kids and I will have to settle down. Hopefully, I will continue working for myself. I get that this is not for everyone and that not everyone has the opportunity to live this way, so I’m super grateful for it.
Everyone says, “You’re living the dream. I wish I could do what you’re doing and live in my truck”. And I say, “You could, but are you willing to sacrifice to do it?” I just don’t know what my other choice was. It would have been miserable.
Above: Jess Mudgett’s mural for Wrangler
Do you plan or sketch a mural ahead of time, or just crack open the pen or brush and let inspiration take you?
I draw the murals out beforehand. There’s a lot of depth to painting a mural. I usually take a picture of the wall, mock it up, and then show the people who hired me the design. Then I project the artwork on the wall with a projector and paint the image. There’s a whole process to it.
How do you find your next creative work opportunity?
I’m fortunate enough that opportunities have been coming to me. I haven’t had to do that much searching lately. Opportunities keep coming into my inbox which I am super thankful for. I would like to start reaching out with more intention and give direction on what I want to do for them. For the time being, the opportunities are rolling in. I know that could end at any second.
Above: Click the above video to watch Jess Mudgett paint the mural at Four Wheel Campers
Is there a mural or installation opportunity you are dreaming of?
Not really. I feel like I’ve already reached that. I take it day by day and project by project. Some are better than others. Some pay really well. Some aren’t exactly what I want to do, but we’ve all got to make money. I’ve been saying no to a lot of things lately where I didn’t use to. When I started I was starving and trying to make money. Now that things are rolling better it’s been nice to pick and choose what projects I want to pursue.
Artwork being everywhere kind of devalues it in a way, so I kind of pick and choose who I work with wisely and where my artwork winds up. If it’s on everything, people aren’t going to value it.
That’s an interesting balance. It’s like a starving actor who takes any role to start his/her career, and then starts picking scripts when he/she becomes successful.
Right, you’ve got to refine what you’re doing. Not having conviction, you end up in places you don’t want to be. It’s important to have intention in your life and know where you want to end up and what you want to put out in the world every day.
It’s been important to say no to things, or maybe I don’t align with the company or the person. I want to work with people I want to work with. That’s the power of being my own boss; to engage with people I want to engage with. It’s nice when you work with good people.
Above: Jess Mudgett’s mural for Tumble Weed Bicycle Co.
There’s a circle that appears throughout many of your works. Does that represent something?
It’s a little abstract. People take it for what it is. I try to have it represent the sun or the moon. It’s been a fun thing to incorporate into my artwork. It kind of always winds up there. It happened on its own and I like it.
How do you plan where to go next?
My work. If I get a job there, I go there. I plan as I go. It’s been non-stop lately. I try to mix work and play. I painted in Jackson Hole and then snowboarded the week after. I try not to work all the time.
Above: Jess Mudgett’s mural for Gold Thorn Tattoo
Where do you stay at night?
I try to stay away from people as much as possible. A lot of times I won’t pop the camper. I’ll just park on the street and crawl in the back. I do that a lot. When you pop the camper, it’s really obvious you’re in there. I’ll pull up on some side street and pop in the back. It’s super cozy. I don’t mind it.
That’s how I was living for a long time before the camper. I’ve been sleeping in the back of cars for years now. But, it’s nice having the camper on the back because it feels like a hotel.
Is this lifestyle of travel and creative entrepreneurship your plan for the foreseeable future?
As I said earlier, I enjoy this lifestyle, but I’m excited to buy a home and property. I want to be able to come off the road and have a place to go to decompress, relax, and have open space. I’m doing this for now to make enough money to get that property and then focus on that. That’s the next step.
So, where do you envision this property?
I don’t know. I think life will help with that. Possibly Wyoming or Utah or maybe eastern Oregon. Or it could be Washington. I’m not sure yet. I’ve got some time to figure things out. I’m going to keep the truck and saving money until it’s clear. I don’t want to invest in something I’m going to regret. I don’t try to force things too often. It will make sense the older I get.
So you’re trusting the future?
Oh yeah. 100-percent.
What is it about the art that keeps pulling you?
Freedom is what really fuels it. Getting to decide how my day goes and not having someone else deciding the way it goes. That’s what fuels it.
Artwork is a part of my life, but it’s not everything. It’s an avenue to live this way and get to meet the folks I get to meet and do what I get to do. Art is the avenue. What this provides keeps me wanting to do this. The freedom of owning my time is the most important.
If you had a magic wand and money wasn’t an issue, would you stay in the camper?
I don’t know. I would definitely keep the camper and go on big road trips with it. I’d stay in the camper a lot, but I dream of having a cabin and a horse. I just want to have a place to go when I don’t want to be on the road anymore. I want to have that option.
Do you still find time and inspiration to make your own personal art?
That’s a good question. I’ve been struggling with that for the past few years. I don’t have enough energy to do both. It’s been tough for sure. Doing work for other people is fun, but I dream all the time of taking time off and making things I want to make; things for me as a person and not for what the companies work for.
If anyone reading this article is interested in having a Jess Mudgett mural or installation done, what’s the process?
They can go to my website, jessmudgett.squarespace.com, find my email, and contact me. Instagram is a good place, but my email is the best way.
I like to do things that I like to paint. It’s always fun when people will say, “Paint what you want, and we’ll pay you”. Those are the best jobs because I have total creative freedom and I also get paid. That’s the best.
What is it about what you are doing that you want people to know?
That it’s just a beautiful way to live and travel. You’ll see a lot of things you don’t typically see this way. I recommend it to people if they’ve been thinking about doing it. If you are scared or worried, try it out and see what happens. There will be hardships and it won’t be perfect. You are not going to end up with everything you want. It will make you look at the world a bit differently in a good way.
That is something I want to communicate to people. From an outside perspective, a lot of people say, “Oh you live in the truck. Where do you go to the bathroom or shower?”.
There are all of these things, but a lot of things change for the better. They have for me, and maybe it will for that person. I would encourage people to give it a shot. Go live in the truck and travel. That’s the biggest thing I want people to take away.