Pasta Pantaleo’s path to highly regarded marine artist happened by accident

Marine wildlife artist Pasta Pantaleo of Islamorada works on a mural featuring a school of dolphin that he painted on the back wall at Shenanigan’s Pub & Barbecue in Dania Beach.
Marine wildlife artist Pasta Pantaleo of Islamorada works on a mural featuring a school of dolphin that he painted on the back wall at Shenanigan’s Pub & Barbecue in Dania Beach. For the Miami Herald

Pasta Pantaleo’s transition from a Hollywood sign shop owner to highly regarded marine wildlife artist pretty much happened by accident.

The talented Pantaleo specialized in painting signs at his sign shop, as well as custom airbrushing cars at a body shop that he also owned. His vehicular artwork was popular, and one day in 1997 a local fisherman asked Pantaleo if he could paint a sailfish on the tailgate of his pickup truck.

It was the first fish that Pantaleo, who loved to fish offshore, had ever painted professionally, and the truck owner, Jamie Bunn of Pompano Beach, was delighted. That sailfish led to a new career as a marine artist, but not right away for Pantaleo, who kept busy with his two businesses and his frequent fishing trips.

“I was a custom painter, but I was a closet fisherman. That’s how I kind of got the bug,” Pantaleo said recently while painting a mural featuring a sea turtle and dolphin on the rear wall by the pickup window at Shenanigan’s Eastside Pub & Barbecue in Dania Beach.

Now his colorful, “Reel Life” depictions of marine life resonate not only with anglers, but anyone who has a love of the ocean.

Pantaleo, whose given name is Roberto — he got his nickname from his older brother Nick — had moved with his mother from Brooklyn, New York, to South Florida as a teenager, but he didn’t start fishing until much later. He got into boating because he would buy a used ski boat, repair and custom paint it in his body shop, and use it until someone wanted to buy it. Then he’d repeat the process.

Pantaleo got into fishing after he bought a 26-foot Oceanic, which he said was “my first real boat,” and headed offshore for the first time.

“I was like ‘OK, this is what I want to do.’ I loved being offshore,” he said. “I already loved marine life, drawing fish since I was a little kid, being around the water.”

Pantaleo got back to seriously painting fish two years after airbrushing that sailfish thanks to a suggestion from Bunn’s father, Rick. Bunn was running the Pompano Beach Saltwater Circuit tournament series when he parted ways with an artist who was supposed to provide the art for tournament posters, program covers and T-shirts. With a tournament upcoming, Bunn needed a new artist who could work fast.

“He was getting crunched for time and his father said, ‘Hey, get that guy that did your tailgate.’ I don’t usually do promo stuff, because I was already making a living, but at that time I said I’d do it, it’s going to be fun. I was ready. I was old enough, settled enough,” Pantaleo said. “[At the tournament’s kickoff party] people were coming out of the woodwork, saying, ‘Who’s this guy Pasta, we’ve never seen his work before?’ My style was different, kind of airbrushy. People loved this stuff. They really loved it. Me and Jamie had a great run. He put me on the map.”

Pantaleo’s art career got another major boost from the International Game Fish Association, which is headquartered in Dania Beach. At the time, the IGFA worked closely with some of the most celebrated marine artists in the world, displaying their work at its booth at boat shows.

“The IGFA put me in with all the big marine artists when I was doing the shows,” Pantaleo said. “[IGFA Chief Operating Officer] Mike Myatt really did a lot for me. He put me in the right place with the right people all the time. When I was just coming up, I had no business being in the arenas I was in, but it was the IGFA that did that.”

Pantaleo eventually sold his Hollywood businesses and moved to Islamorada to focus full-time on his marine art. Highly successful and with a thriving gallery (visit www.artbypasta.com), Pantaleo now does a lot of custom artwork for collectors all over the world, but he said he’s only painting the mural at Shenanigans because restaurant owner Pat Utter has been a longtime friend and supporter who, like Pantaleo, constantly gives back to the community.

Utter, who used to own hot rods that Pantaleo painted, noted that Pantaleo had donated the artwork for trophies for the Hollywood Police Athletic League fishing tournament. When Utter and his wife, Christine, were thinking about doing something with the back wall at Shenanigan’s Eastside, a mural by Pantaleo was the automatic choice.

Without even sketching it out, Pantaleo painted a swimming sea turtle and yellowtail snappers on one wall section, and a school of dolphin with a wahoo lurking beneath some bar jacks in a weed line on another section.

“He took a building and he transformed it to a whole other level with his artistic ability,” Utter said. “Before I even put it up there, people didn’t even know I had a drive-through window. They say, ‘Wow! What did you do to the building, it’s so beautiful?’ I didn’t do anything, I just asked Pasta to paint something.”