How a professional muralist went from foster care to earning $160,000/year: 'No. 1, I’m a businessperson'

This professional muralist went from foster care to earning $160,000 a year
This professional muralist went from foster care to earning $160,000 a year

Hayley Ferreira spent three years in and out of foster care after her parents passed away when she was barely a teenager. The 45-year-old, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, says she was driven by her circumstances to succeed.

"I lived in a really bad area, and I wanted to get out. So it definitely drove me," Ferreira says. "I remember my uncle would always say, 'You better find a rich husband.' And I'd always say, 'I'm going to be the rich husband.' I'm not quite there yet, but I still have plenty of time."

More from Grow:
How a bartender went from making $250/shift to $250/hour
How nurses are embracing van life and making $20K/month
This 40-year-old is using real estate to build ‘generational wealth’

That determination led Ferreira to a rewarding career as an artist: She brought in $160,000 in 2021 as of December 1. Ferreira, founder of The Bay Area Muralist, has painted for brands such as Pepsi and Trader Joe's. In May, Sprouts paid her $26,500 for four murals.

Ferreira attributes her success to her business acumen. "No. 1, I am a business person. I'm an entrepreneur. Second, I'm an artist," Ferreira says. "I don't even consider myself the best artist. … I think selling myself is my biggest ability."

Hayley Ferreira founded The Bay Area Muralist and has been painting murals full time for about 20 years.
Grow team shoot

Artistic talent runs in the family 

Ferreira grew up drawing and painting for fun, like her father. He was an artist who passed away of a heroin overdose when she was 13.

"I think most everyone has some type of artistic ability on my dad's side," Ferreira says. Her uncle, Rene Ricard, was a famous art critic and artist, who appeared in Andy Warhol's films and helped launch the career of artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat. He passed away in 2014.

Ferreira "grew up very poor" and in a "really bad area" in Bedford, Massachusetts. She recalls, "I was afraid to go to school every day. Because I wasn't sure if I was going to get into a fight or stabbed or shot. I remember at 5 years old, I had a girl trying to stab me."

From a young age, Ferreira felt determined to succeed. "On my father's side of the family, they're all on welfare," she says. "And I knew I was not going to live that life."

'My business started with a boom'

Ferreira grew up painting on canvases for fun, but didn't intend to turn it into a career until her mid-20s while living in California.

At age 16, she emancipated herself and became a legal adult after moving to the San Francisco Bay Area with her aunt and uncle. Ferreira moved out of her relatives' home and worked at Jack in the Box and in administrative roles.

Ferreira was in and out of foster care for three years after her parents had both passed away by the time she was 13.
Courtesy Hayley Ferreira

Ferreira pivoted to painting in 2000, after she was laid off from her job as an executive assistant at a tech company amid the dot-com crash. A friend introduced her to the concept of mural art, which was gaining in popularity at the time. Ferreira described her initial reaction as, "'Uh, what? Why would they paint on walls?'"

She soon warmed up to the idea and decided to market herself as a muralist. Ferreira paid $500 to attend a home and garden trade show, to network and build a client roster. "I took my car payment and some other money I had, and I said, 'Well, if this doesn't work, then I guess I won't have a car,'" she says.

The decision paid off. "By the end of the show, I had a notebook full of people that wanted consultations," she says. "And I was booked. My business started with a boom."

Ferreira charged $26,500 for this mural painted in the city of Hayward, California, which took three weeks to complete.
Courtesy Hayley Ferreira

That's despite the fact that Ferreira wasn't even sure how to paint a mural until she took on her first gig. "I think I went to the library and learned the day before I painted a mural, how to paint a mural," she says.

"This was a 20-foot mural, and I only charged $900 for it. I thought like, 'Man, $900! That's a ton of money!' When I was done, I remember the woman came home … and she cried. I started crying too ... and I just thought, 'This is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life.'"

Ferreira advises anyone starting a new endeavor: "Don't be afraid to not know what you're doing. So many times I come across like, 'I don't know how to do this.' And I go on YouTube or whatever. And yeah, I find out how to do it."

Ferreira painted six Trader Joe's stores about a decade ago, and charged a total of $65,500.
Courtesy Hayley Ferreira

Earning 6 figures as an artist

Today, Ferreira says she has built up the experience and credibility to charge $30 to $40 a square foot, depending on the complexity of the mural. That's resulted in some lucrative projects. In 2019, she charged a tire company $37,000 for 10 20-foot logos, which took four weeks to complete.

In 2020, she painted a 38 x 21-foot mural depicting a Roman piazza in the city of Hayward, California, for $26,500. The project took three weeks. Ferreira has painted two more 20-foot murals for Pepsi, which cost $8,500 and $7,500. Each mural took 3 to 4 days.

Ferreira is gearing up for what could be the most lucrative project of her career, in 2022: painting the outside of an Amazon warehouse, including a 168 x 15-foot mural and 140 x 15-foot mural. Ferreira is asking for $105,000 for the project, which she estimates will take about six weeks.

Ferreira paints a mural for Trader Joe's about a decade ago.
Courtesy Hayley Ferreira

Ferreira wasn't always making this much: She earned $50,000 to $60,000 a year "for a long time." Her business has grown steadily in the last 20 years but plateaued at "just before six figures for a while." 

The Bay Area Muralist started bringing in six figures in revenue only in the last few years. In 2020, she earned about $115,000. In 2019, the business brought in about $100,000.

"The pandemic impacted my business, positively," Ferreira says. "A lot of companies went out of business. And then the people that bought them up hired someone like me to paint. Homeowners were bored at home. So instead of looking at white walls, they wanted a mural to look at."

Ferreira charged $6,000 for this mural painted in a juice shop in Hayward, California.
Courtesy Hayley Ferreira

To make money, you 'need to put money into being a business'

Ferreira advises other artists who are starting out to invest in their business before they can think about making money. "Put in your mind, 'I need to put money into being a business. I have to start a website. I have to get a portfolio.' If you have to work for free, work for free. At that point, it's not about your self-worth. It's about, 'I have to learn.' Build up your clientele."

Investing in marketing and branding has paid off for Ferreira. Years ago, she hired a marketing professional who advised her to change the name of her business from Ferreira Designs to The Bay Area Muralist. "When people are searching for muralist in the Bay Area, they put in Bay Area muralist and I am the first one that pops up," Ferreira says. "I probably owe a lot of my success to that marketing person that I hired years ago."

Ferreira estimates she has painted 400 to 500 murals, mostly in Northern California.
Courtesy Hayley Ferreira

Ferreira says it has paid off to view her art as a business and service, rather than something emotional. "Artists get attached to their style," she says. "They don't want to go away from their style. It's very, maybe personal to them. Maybe a bit of an ego."

By contrast, she says, "Hayley Ferreira does not have a style. My style is your style — whatever the client wants. And that's how I've built my business."

The article "How a professional muralist went from foster care to earning $160,000/year: ‘No. 1, I’m a businessperson’″ was originally published on Grow (CNBC + Acorns).

I quit my $35K job to grow my side hustle — now it brings in $141 million a year
I quit my $35K job to grow my side hustle — now it brings in $141 million a year