Mitch Omar turns hogs into works of art - and we're not talking about pigs.
To say that Mitch Omar's company paints motorcycles is like saying Ferrari builds cars. Yes, they do, but the result is unlike anything else you'll find rolling down the highway.
In the shop and showroom of O's Custom Paints, tucked away in a commercial strip near the Bartlett City Park, Omar runs his hands gently over a recent creation — a Harley-Davidson gas tank adorned with the smirking grimace of the Joker from The Dark Knight. Crafted from a dozen coats of colored, clear, and metallic paint, the image looks three-dimensional, and Omar points with pride at the razor-thin pinstripes that run the length of the tank.
"That wasn't done with masking tape," he says, which is the easiest way to form straight lines. "That's all painted entirely by hand."
So how did a former stockbroker end up as the head of one of the top custom motorcycle painting companies in America, the only firm to have its products displayed in Harley-Davidson showrooms, the official painter for two limited-edition series of Elvis Presley bikes authorized by Graceland, and the only painters included in a nationwide tour of customized motorcycles?
In a way, it started with 9/11.
"I worked for Dean Witter in Memphis, and they had a branch office in the World Trade Center," says Omar. "After 9/11, I thought, 'Why am I doing something I don't have a passion for?' So I thought I'd try something new."
A lifelong fan of Harleys, with a natural talent for custom painting, Omar contacted one of his clients, motorcycle customizer Mike Robins in Oklahoma. "I asked if I could spend a few weeks with him, working on bikes," says Omar, "just to see if the fire was really there."
That fire turned into a blaze. In October 2002 Omar opened his own shop. "Most motorcycle custom painting was 'underground' — something you did in your garage and backyard," he says. "I wanted to bring a level of professionalism to the market."
He convinced pinstriping master Robins to join him, and brought aboard airbrush artisan Steven Williams and display genius Andy Walker. A few clients that first year soon turned into a parade of satisfied customers, including Bumpus Harley-Davidson in Memphis, and Bruce Rossmeyer, owner of several Harley dealerships, including the world's largest (in Daytona Beach, Florida) and Southern Thunder in Whitehaven.
In 2007, Omar — in conjunction with Rossmeyer and Elvis Presley Enterprises — produced a series of 30 customized motorcycles commemorating the 30th anniversary of the death of the King of Rock-and-Roll. Every bike was sold. This year, he worked with Rossmeyer and EPE to crank out a smaller series — just five signed and numbered Harley Street Glides — to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Elvis' "triumphant return to the stage" in 1969, when he began to perform in Las Vegas. Motorcycle #1, adorned with images from the concerts, went to a customer from Australia. The $50,000 cost included an unusual accessory — a matching, custom-painted St. Blues electric guitar.
Omar's relationship with Rossmeyer came to a tragic end in July 2009 when Rossmeyer died in a motorcycle accident in Wyoming. "Bruce opened many doors for me," says Omar. "But we've maintained a close relationship with his family, and his niece, Lisa, now owns Southern Thunder, so we will continue to work with them."
Happier news recently came from Tom Zimberoff, author of the best-selling book The Art of the Chopper, who has organized customized motorcycles into a traveling exhibit. He invited Omar to include 20 hand-painted gas tanks in the show, which will open October 7th at the Appleton Museum in Ocala, Florida, and move to other venues across the country next year.
"That is just huge for us," says Omar. "Zimberoff has really picked the best of the best, and out of all the shops and painters in the country, we're the only ones whose work is included in the exhibit."
And even in the midst of a struggling economy, Omar says his business has been booming like a Hog with straight pipes. "With my financial background, I pay attention to the numbers, and our work hasn't really dropped off," he says. "We'll probably do 55 to 60 bikes this year, and I'd say more than 85 percent of them are from out of state — many of them out of the country. And each one is basically a business card that lets others see what we do."
Customers visit his website (www.ospaint.com), select from lavish designs and colors, and then ship the parts — usually the tank and fenders — to Bartlett. A gas tank adorned with the Joker, skulls, beautiful women — anything you want, really — isn't cheap. The cost starts at $2,000, but riders will be cruising along the highway on a work of art that is completely unique.
"I opened this shop seven years ago this month," says Omar, "and I've got a great team here. We are absolutely committed to our artistry."