It was 1998 and only a table separated Justin Tigner from Brian Grant.
Tigner’s aunt and sister were members of Grant’s fan club, and asked Tigner, a 25-year old artist, to do a painting of the then-Portland Trail Blazers standout to have him sign at a meet-and-greet.
His sister backed out at the last minute, Tigner gladly attended in her place, and when he slid the painting over to Grant — who was at the time one of Portland’s most recognizable public figures — Grant exclaimed, “this is amazing.” His public relations specialist and manager, standing behind him, agreed.
Then came the offer.
“You need to give me a call,” they told Tigner as they slid him a business card. “We’ve been looking for an artist.”
That moment proved pivotal. For Tigner, now the art teacher at King’s Way Christian School, it led to decades of doing art — both for a career and for charity.
Even just by saying that he worked for Brian Grant helped launch Tigner into a career as an artist — and eventually, teaching.
Among his recent clientele are the Portland Trail Blazers, the Oregon Ducks athletic department, former Ducks quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, former Ducks standout defensive lineman Haloti Ngata’s foundations, and former coach Mike Belotti’s annual Muscular Dystrophy fundraiser at University of Oregon, where Tigner has donated a painting every year since 2002. Tigner has also worked with former Blazer Patty Mills’ charity, Assist Australia
Tigner has depicted some of his favorite athletes, and rubbed elbows with some of his sports heroes. But what fused Tigner with his art — which often takes the style of a movie poster and incorporates anything from comic markers, pens, pencils, paint and water colors — was the potential it has to give back to the world.
In the late 1990s, Tigner donated two paintings of Grant to the Ronald McDonald House Charities, a nonprofit aimed to support children’s health and well-being. He recalls the paintings being auctioned off, and taking note of the price they went for. Then the head of the foundation told him the proceeds from the paintings paid for six months rent for the family of a child going through treatment.
“That changed your view on donating stuff,” Tigner said. “It was a fun week for me just painting on canvas. The people it helps, it’s amazing to be able to do stuff like that.”
Now, more than 20 years later, his client list is steady. They range from longstanding clients, to charities, to the NFL player who reached out for a Black Panther-themed mural in his kid’s bedroom. Though he takes less clients, he is passing on his talents to the next generation as an art teacher at King’s Way. He’s also an assistant basketball coach for the Knights.
Tigner spent 10 years as an assistant basketball coach at Fort Vancouver, while maintaining his business Tigner Sports Art. The two paths would often cross, as kids would seek help with their art. Many times he’d find himself asking players to bring their laptops to practice, where he helped them with Photoshop.
That gave him the itch. He sought to blend his two passions: art and coaching sports. In teaching art, he’d have the chance to pass his knowledge and experience onto the next generation.
Despite not having a bachelor’s degree, he learned about the career and technical education certification. He got that, and shortly after, was hired to teach art at King’s Way.
He immediately found teaching gratifying.
“The kids who love art, they’re a breeze,” Tigner said. “Help them with technique and they can tweak things. But it’s the (other) kids, I wondered, am I going to be able to explain to someone who has zero interest, doesn’t do it on their own, how to do this?”
This past school year, his second at the private K-12 school, he relayed the joy it brought him to see a baseball player find confidence in art. The student came into the semester saying, “I can’t do this, I don’t know what to do,” and by the time the semester was done, he was sending pictures to family and friends of his Bob Ross-type landscape painting.
Once kids — particularly the athletes at the school — heard about his body of work (the school circulated an old ESPN feature on Tigner), his class began to fill up.
Last fall, Damon Casetta-Stubbs, then a senior at King’s Way, approached Tigner during a first period art class that consisted of five students. He had an offer: Why not turn the elective into a shoe design class?
After a unanimous vote from the students, and administrative approval, Tigner gave the idea the go-ahead.
Over the course of the semester, the students were taught airbrushing techniques, researched paint types and took to Instagram, where popular accounts such as “Kickstradamous” and “Kickasso” gave inspiration.
“It was definitely a lot of fun,” Casetta-Stubbs, now a pitcher in the Seattle Mariners minor league organization, said. “We had a lot of fun looking at all the designs. He taught us a lot.”
Casetta-Stubbs and his family had an Oregon Ducks athletics poster hanging in their basement that, upon further review, was a Tigner original. Tigner says that happens from time to time, and he makes sure students get them for free, if they choose.
“Any kid who is a Husky and Cougar fans I said I’ll take one and write ‘Go Huskies’ or ‘Go Cougs’ and sign my name,” he said.
To Tigner, it’s also important his students understand the business side of art.
When the Oregon Ducks men’s basketball team was on the verge of making a Final Four, the UO Bookstore reached out to him about commissioning a painting if the Ducks advanced. Tigner took the opportunity to show his class, step-by-step, how the process worked — down to installing a “kill fee” in case the team fell short, to the several rounds of feedback and changes on a tight deadline.
While he was instructing the class on designing shoes, Tigner worked on his own. He took a basic white pair of Jordan Brand sneakers and adorned them with green wings on the tongue and Mariota, the Tennessee Titans quarterback, on the sides in his collegiate Oregon jersey. Tigner said he was excited to wear them to Oregon home games this fall — he’s had season tickets more most of his life.
Then he posted a photo of the shoes on social media, and Mariota’s camp took notice. Tigner might even design a pair for Mariota during the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign for Week 13 in early December. (“Nothing in writing, but there’s a good chance I’ll be doing them,” Tigner said.)