Inside Igor’s Custom
February 1, 2023 @ 10:00am
An antique gas pump out front, a classic blue Ford truck and the words “Hello trouble, come on in” emblazoned on the red and black brick shop front were my cues to peek around the corner.
This is where I meet Igor, tucked away in Virginia Beach’s vibrant ViBe Creative District inside a garage-turned-grunge canvas. He’s rocking a patchwork of full-sleeve and leg tattoos, and a Stooges tee. He turns to his left, flashing a weathered but handsome smile, and offers an unassuming “How’s it going?”
His space is home to classic refrigerators, half-dusted paintings and other honorariums to Americana gathered over a lifetime, providing a satisfying feast for the senses. The best way to describe Igor’s sanctuary is a blend of Guillermo del Toro’s house of horrors and “American Hot Rod.”
Igor’s Custom is filled with taxidermized animals of every ilk — from foxes in sunglasses to weasels and wildcats — and a parade of oddities and eccentrics inside a closet-sized attraction called “The World’s Smallest Museum,” complete with easels, paint brushes, sketches, memorabilia and more.
On this unseasonably warm October afternoon, Igor is painting a retooled 1960 split-window Volkswagen bus. Fashioned with brilliant pops of yellow, the bus is a rare collector’s item that Igor explains has become harder and harder to come by. The height and width of the bus have been shortened, “a no-no in the world of Volkswagen enthusiasts,” and retrofitted with a 500 cubic-inch Cadillac motor in the back.
“You can pretty much just look at the gas pedal and the front wheels come off the ground,” Igor says.
Igor’s contribution to this rolling work of art — the property of a well-known car enthusiast, philanthropist and friend — is the addition of Hawaiian-inspired typography reading “Freaky tiki, hot rod shop.”
“I get to do so many crazy cars,” he continues. “Some of them are super rare that I’ll probably never see or touch again — like million-dollar cars.”
For Igor, this is a normal Monday and his little slice of heaven, a chance to leave his literal fingerprints on exotic automobiles and museum-worthy pieces by adding intricate pinstripes and funky lettering.
He exudes a loner vibe at first meeting, but I sense he enjoys a good conversation. I ask if I can return in a few days to chat on the record. I have so many questions: How does one become a painter of cars, motorcycle helmets, storefront signs and larger-than-life murals in a seasonal beach destination?
As a kid growing up in New Castle County, Delaware, Igor would frequently draw monsters in his schoolbooks — a journey into the fantastical that’s echoed in his collection of oddities. He studied commercial art in high school and first learned to paint grocery store signs in the ’80s when hand-painted window signs like “Steaks for 15 cents” were still commonplace.
Igor’s first official gig was painting signs for his aunt and uncle’s pizza shop as a teenager, a short-lived, though lucrative, endeavor and his first taste of entrepreneurship. After high school, Igor moved to Ocean City, Maryland, where he painted the sides of boats. He eventually made his way to Virginia Beach in 1990, where he was hired to do window displays for a local store chain. Ten years later, he decided to dive fully into his art, an idea he initially resisted before necessity intervened.
“I had to do something, or I was going to go broke,” Igor remembers. “I tried the painting thing and from day one, I’ve never had to do anything else.”
Igor always had artistic inclinations, which were greatly influenced by his mother and grandfather’s art, and he inherited his petrol-head genes from his dad and uncle’s love of classic cars and foray into drag racing in the ’60s. His creative genius is equally fueled by his eclectic taste in music, and his shop includes the paraphernalia of a true audiophile.
“If you’re working on something really aggressive and you’ve got some really hard-driving, hardcore music, I think that helps,” Igor suggests. “Or if you’re working on something really pretty, and you’ve got some nice, calming music.”
Long before Igor made his way to Virginia Beach, he stumbled into a career as a roadie for Top 40 pop group Y-NOT?! This is where he was first exposed to D.C.’s iconic music scene. He recalls seeing the legendary hardcore punk Bad Brains on several occasions at 9:30 Club, and recounts one unforgettable evening with one of the world’s greatest living trumpet players, Wynton Marsalis, at Blues Alley.
He has a hall-of-fame-worthy dance card of melodic experiences: seeing Sting in the front row; witnessing James Brown christen the reopening of Norfolk, Virginia venue NorVa in 2000; sitting on a tour bus with B.B. King; and selling a piece of his art to Kid Rock for $20,000 at a Nashville auction to benefit veterans.
And Igor is already salivating at the return of Pharrell Williams’ Something in the Water festival taking place in Virginia Beach this April, following a short run in the District.
Igor emphasizes that being one-dimensional is a recipe for failure — it’s a gut check which serves as an invaluable lesson for any creative.
“I had to know how to pinstripe, do gold leafing, paint signs [and] murals,” Igor says of his skillset in the early days. “Really anything anybody came into my shop to ask for, I had to be well-rounded or know how to fake it.”
Igor has amassed quite a resume, leading to his involvement in Virginia Beach’s annual mural festival. Each year in May, 10 murals go up in 10 days in the ViBe District, with artists traveling from as far as Ohio and Oklahoma to participate.
In 2018, during the festival’s inaugural year, Igor agreed to join the cohort of painters. What emerged from that process was Igor’s signature work of art, a reimagined rendering of a painting by 20th-century American illustrator Peter Helck, who was famous for composing racecar-inspired pieces.
“I don’t know what the hell I was thinking,” Igor laughs. “I stumbled across one of his paintings and [thought], ‘That’s pretty awesome and fitting. Do I attempt to do a 100-foot-long classic painting? Yes.’”
The project almost didn’t happen. Igor needed permission to use one of Helck’s creations as source material. He reached out to the family with his request and had to wait for everyone to individually sign off. He had all but given up when he received a note that read, “Everybody talked about it, and we want you to have at it and make it your own.”
Igor set out with an old-school projector, often drawing in the dark and through a steady stream of rain showers, within shouting distance of Richmond-based muralists Ed Trask and Caesar. The most important lesson received from his contemporaries during that 10-day stretch was to invest in a better projector, which was the first thing he purchased after completing the mural.
He describes the ViBe District’s mural festival as one of the coolest moments of his career — almost as cool as getting a chance to show the finished product to Helck’s grandson. The opportunity to reimagine Helck’s work is, just like his shop and professional journey, an example of Igor’s ability to strike a balance between sheer chance, beautiful chaos and creative triumph.
Igor’s Custom: 607 19th St. Unit D, Virginia Beach, VA; @igorscustom