Meet the Master Behind Pittsburgh's Finest Artwork
“It would be an 8.5 on Barstool’s one-bite rating scale.”
That’s awfully high praise for a small shop such as Mr. Mike’s Pizza (located in Irwin, PA), but if any artist knows taste, it’s Pittsburgh’s own Cody Sabol.
Sabol is a simple man. He’s an avid gamer (Fortnite and Assassins Creed are two favorites) and your typical God-fearing family man. Sabol is also practically a household name in the Steel City when it comes to his fascinating mixture of his talent/passion for painting and his love of sports.
If you’re new to Sabol, he’s the genius behind some of Pittsburgh’s most beloved art. Sabol has done portraits of (and for) the best to wear black and gold, from new talents such as Devin Bush and JuJu Smith-Schuster to legends such as Sidney Crosby and Ben Roethlisberger. Sabol’s also known for his ability to live-paint, where he completes incredible paintings in under ten minutes. While he’s able to quickly complete those, a typical painting can take anywhere from 24 hours to a couple days to be completed.
Sabol himself was a college football player for Kentucky Christian University, playing every position group but defensive back and offensive line. KCU’s coaching staff was full of former NFL players, with ex Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Hank Poteat on the staff during Sabol’s tenure.
The love for the Steelers and other Pittsburgh sports is alive and well with Sabol, and when asked if he had any particular favorite Steelers moment, no time was wasted on answering:
“I remember watching the 2008 Super Bowl with my grandfather at his house, and I remember specifically Larry Fitzgerald catch ‘that’ pass (the one Fitzgerald scored on late in the game)… That last 2:36, watching it with my grandfather who passed last year, that’s the memory I’ll have forever… The power of sports is it brings people together for the good times and bad times. When I miss my grandfather a lot, I think about the times we watched sports together.”
Sabol, like millions of people across the world, hold sports in a high regard. It was obvious to me when speaking to Cody that he held a true love Pittsburgh sports, and that passion reflects on the canvas he paints for your heroes playing on Sunday. Sabol grew up in North Huntingdon, PA and remains local to this day. Both parents attended Penn State, and Sabol just so happens to be buddy-buddy with a handful of athletes around the city.
Sabol said he started painting in a “more performance-esq” way during his time at KCU, where he befriended musician friends that would play around campus. Sabol would paint while they played, and that’s how the fire began.
“Once I started, I never really stopped” he said. “It just got better over time and now it’s been five years since I did my first live painting with them… It’s a very unique story because that’s not really how any artist starts out. I’ve always been drawing and doing things like that, but just as a hobby. One day it was just like ‘hey, let’s see what we can do with this.’”
It’s hard to argue what Sabol has been able to accomplish with the stroke of a brush, as Sabol’s popularity among Pittsburgh athletes has developed into sincere friendships. It started at a camp/festival Sabol attended at Kentucky Christian before he was even enrolled and playing football.
“I went there and I had this amazing time, it influenced my decision to go to college, paint and what not. They eventually invited me (down the road) to paint and be one of live performers there,” said Sabol.
“I am at this festival in 2017 and on one of my breaks, I see this charity event that (Pittsburgh Pirates player) Josh Harrison is throwing. I sent a cold email (email sent without prior contact) to the ticket place, and basically said ‘Hey my name’s Cody, here’s a few pictures of what I paint, I do them live and in ten minutes, would this be an interesting thing to have at your event?’… I didn’t expect to hear anything.”
Sabol then said the head of the charity organization responded right away and asked if he would not only do Harrison’s event, but also an event for Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward a few months down the road as well.
“At Josh Harrison’s event I met just about all of the Pirates. I met all the Steelers’ at Cam Heyward’s event, and that’s what started my relationship with Cam” Sabol said. “It was from those two events that these athletes saw me paint, everything kind of exploded.”
Sabol’s work exploded indeed, as his painting skills began to make their way onto various news platforms and spread across social media. Sabol referenced his Phil Kessel painting that went viral during Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup Final run in 2017 as the first big painting that blew up.
“The combination of those things happening in a span of one summer was incredible” said Sabol.
Canvas’ aren’t the only source of material Sabol has worked with, as customized cleats are becoming a popular trend among professional players. Sabol admits his first attempt wasn’t his best.
“I would offer it (to paint cleats) for some guys and they would say ‘Yeah!’. I did not know how to paint cleats, at all, so I watched maybe six YouTube videos and my first pair of cleats for Trevor Williams were horrible. But I started investing myself and over the years you just naturally get better. I just finished a pair of cleats for Pirates shortstop Cole Tucker, I just dropped them off actually. Comparing those to my first pair in 2017, I’d say there’s a heck of a difference there.”
In a response to a part of the process of painting that people may underrate, Sabol wasn’t shy when speaking on his work. “I think my paintings are over-appreciated” said Sabol. Sabol points to the development process as his best answer, noting the vastly different processes that can mentally take place while painting.
While connecting with giants in the world of Pittsburgh sports, one would argue Sabol has safely established himself as one of the more popular artists to emerge within the city of bridges. When asked about the moment Sabol felt like he “made it”, Sabol responded like any great player at the podium:
“I’ve always thought that once you felt like you made it, you would just feel differently” he said. “Almost like you get off stage or you hand a painting to Sidney Crosby and someone pulls you through a trap door and says ‘Hey man you finally made it, congratulations!’. The more you do it, you realize it’s all about the work… You want to be thankful for the opportunities that you’ve been given, but by no means is it a time for you to bask in your own glory … I think the whole I’ve made it thing slows down the drive for you to get better at what you’re doing.”
Sabol admitted there’s been a lot of really cool moments he’s been able to experience, where he’s tried to be in the moment and take mental snapshots. As for his future, Sabol said he’s in the works of completing an awesome Miles Morales Spider-Man piece for one of Cam Heyward’s sons while also teasing a new Ben Roethlisberger painting, with prints coming soon. Sabol said there will also be a lot of work to come with MLB players now with the season getting ready to be played again.
For people such as Cody, it’s important to recognize the position somebody such as himself may be in. Whether we realize it or not, there are people who look up to each and every one of us as humans. I asked Cody for what advice he would pass on to somebody who aspires to be in his shoes:
“My big advice is going to be so cliché … It truly is just paint on anything, and paint all the time. If you’re interested in becoming an artist that can sustain themselves financially for the business, you have to paint and put out stuff all the time. I had my break in 2017 and to tell the truth, I was not ready for it … Work on getting better … If you’re working hard, people will find you. If you’re talented, people will find you… So, just keep putting yourself out there. Don’t be scared to not be good enough yet, because I wasn’t and I’m still not, and people don’t seem to care all that much. You just keep putting out work because you love to do it, and people will find you.”