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Kevin Bates works on his mural portraits on a building on Frazier Avenue.

Twenty feet off the ground, Kevin Bates strokes a brush coated in dark paint along the uneven brick of a building on Frazier Avenue.

Motorists drive by, some peeping over to catch the man at work. Overhead, the likenesses of three men tower above Bates as he works. Because of the nature of the project, he's not allowed to say who they are.

"Like all good things, I stumbled into this work," Bates said.

While hoping only for an easy "A" in his high school art class, Bates discovered his knack for drawing. After he displayed a few of his paintings inside a restaurant, his work began to draw attention. But his faces have gathered the most.

"My thought was, if I did a picture of a house or a tree -- well, it could be any house or tree," Bates said. "But if it were a face -- specifically, a famous face -- you would know, looking at it, if it looked right or not. I wanted to see if other people could recognize the faces I was painting. Turns out, most can. Not all, but most."

The painter is steadily leaving his mark throughout Chattanooga. His depictions of Samuel L. Jackson, Al Capone and Bessie Smith grace the walls of some of the city's popular venues. And with each project, the size of his canvas grows.

For Bates, the public's response is his most valued reward.

"I like a reaction," Bates said. "I think one of the reasons for art is reaction, even if it's hate. What's really strange is when people walk by and they pay no attention whatsoever. There's a guy on a ladder, 20 feet up in the air with a paintbrush between his teeth, and they'll walk by and not even look at the wall. That's strange to me."

Bates often draws inspiration from history, through old family pictures his friends post on Facebook, or by searching through the Library of Congress archives for photographs out of copyright.

"I like old things," Bates said. "It's one of the reasons I paint primarily in black and white; I like the look and feel of old pictures."

Bates keeps busy with his large-scale murals but hopes to display some of his smaller pieces locally.

"I can't believe I'm getting paid to paint and listen to music. I'm just looking forward to doing more work."

MOMENT is a weekly column by the Times Free Press photo staff that explores the seldom-told stories of our region. To hear this story in their own words, go to