In August of 2019, Pittsburgh-based artist Cody Sabol did an ultra-colorful painting of JuJu Smith-Schuster, which displayed a halo over his head and classic style graffiti in the background. The vibrant colors and graffiti highlight Smith-Schuster’s fun-loving and lively personality, along with the halo that pays homage to “Good JuJu,” a popular saying among fans that symbolizes Smith-Schuster’s young and innocent demeanor.
The painting instantly got the attention of Steelers fans on social media, who adored the creative piece of Smith-Schuster. Eventually, it also caught the eye of Smith-Schuster and the piece ultimately ended up in his hands — which is often the case when it comes to Sabol’s artwork and Pittsburgh professional athletes.
Sabol’s relationship with professional athletes in the city started in the summer of 2017 when he sent a cold email to the company that did the charity events for Josh Harrison, who was with the Pirates at the time and Cameron Heyward saying he’ll do paintings for free at their charity events and they could auction them off. The company replied instantly and was on board with him making an appearance. From that moment, Sabol, who went to Kentucky Christian University to become a pastor, turned his hobby and passion quickly into a career.
“Being able to paint live in front of the Pirates and Steelers really helped get my name out there to these different athletes,” Sabol said. “Allie Heyward bought something that I did at Cam’s event and I just kept on getting involved in different charity events, just trying to build my own brand and my own art and getting it out there.”
Over time Sabol has developed a close friendship with Heyward, and, by working at his charity events and doing cleat designs for the All-Pro defensive lineman, other players at the Steelers’ facility on the South Side have noticed Sabol’s work as well.
“When my stuff is sitting out in the lobby and I’m waiting to meet up with a player it gets seen by everybody else, it’s after practice, guys are coming out and they have to walk past my art to leave,” Sabol said. “When they see my artwork and they say ‘Wow, I want one of those, I want you to put me in your art,’ it’s a huge accomplishment.”
The halo design that Sabol did for the painting of Smith-Schuster became a big hit around the Steelers’ locker room and he ended up creating similar pieces for Joe Haden, James Conner, Diontae Johnson and Jordan Dangerfield.
“The halo really brings the attention to the person, as opposed to getting lost in all the graffiti,” Sabol said. “Once you put that halo in there the guy just comes front and center. It worked out kind of on accident. It’s one of those projects that you start and go ‘let’s see how this looks,’ and it turned out this is the style I want to get after. I just wanted to work with color and stuff that I have fun with.”
Sabol worked with artist and former Steelers’ running back Baron Batch in the summer of 2016, an experience that did wonders for Sabol, as Batch inspired him to advance his art style.
“Baron was the first guy to inspire me to work with more color,” Sabol said. “If I needed inspiration anywhere I would go to Big Dog Coffee in the South Side, where he displays most of his art and just being in the presence of his work inspires me to do other stuff on my own. In fact, I’ll attribute all the colorful stuff that I did in the past year to Baron alone. Working with him was always eye-opening and he’s a huge inspiration to me.”
The past couple of years have kind of been a whirlwind for Sabol, as he just recently graduated from college and being a full-time artist wasn’t really planned, and now he spends 8-12 hours almost every day in his basement working on projects for some of the biggest names in Pittsburgh sports.
“The things I learned from working with pro athletes for the most part, other than if you’re dealing with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin because they’re older now, is that a lot of them are just kids, 75 percent of them are my age,” Sabol said, who is 24. “I remember talking to Benny Snell and thinking this guy is so creative like we’re bouncing ideas off each other for paintings and then I look and he’s born in 1998, and I’m like ‘Oh my gosh, I’m old.’”
Being that Sabol is around the same age as most of today’s athletes and knowledgeable with the latest trends, it’s pretty easy for him to bounce off ideas to players and vice versa when it comes to doing paintings or creating a cleat design.
“I’m all art side and they’re all athlete side, people like that get along so well with each other,” Sabol said. “Working with these guys has been so cool because they’re so interested in the stuff that I’m doing. It’s an amazing feeling to talk to guys like Antonio Brown and Sid. It’s so cool that these guys care about anything that I’m doing.”
With the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” initiative starting in 2017, Sabol has been asked by numerous Steelers’ players to create designs for their cleats, a process that can be simple or in-depth, depending on the player’s preference.
“I’ll talk back and forth with the player to see what they want like Cam Heyward just wanted colorful Pro Bowl cleats, Steven Nelson just wanted colorful cleats, but there are guys like Benny Snell, who wants a specific design on one cleat and a specific design on another cleat,” Sabol said. “You just kind of work with them until you come up with something cool and you just try to paint it to the best of your ability and make sure that everything is better than they could have imagined it to be.”
When making cleat designs players give Sabol an idea of what they want, but they don’t really give him a complete template to work off of. Sabol’s artistic creativity puts the vision into full effect.
“They don’t really ever send me pictures, they’ll send me logos that they want to have on the cleats or words they want to have on there, but they never send pictures usually,” Sabol said. “I create it all from scratch and I typically don’t show off what it’s going to look like until it’s done until they open the box and they’re right there.”
During his time working with professional athletes, Sabol has been amazed at how interested players are in art. He even recalls at an event having a 20-30 minute conversation with Crosby just about art. Art, after all, is unlimited and something that connects with everyone.
“Art is universal. There’s not a single person on earth that can’t relate in some way to art,” Sabol said. “Everybody loves a certain type of music, everybody loves a certain type of book, everybody loves a certain type of painting and so forth and so on. Everybody can relate to art in some way.”