Jonny Castro may be the most in-demand artist in Philadelphia, but the distinction is bittersweet. The 35-year-old forensics artist for the Philadelphia Police Department has become the go-to guy for portraits of officers killed in the line of duty. Not just in Philly, but across the country.

"We average, like, 130 officers killed a year, so [it's] tough," he says. "I don't think I can do that number, but if I can do, you know, 90 to 100, I'm happy."

It's a personal project he's taken on in his free time, outside the scope of his regular duties of composite sketches and graphic design work.

Since he started in March 2016, Castro figures, he's done around 290 portraits.

He paints the pieces in Photoshop, using a stylus and Wacom display tablet, and has them printed at a local shop. After that, he stretches and mounts the canvases, fits them with a frame, and ships them to families and police departments all over the country. He pays for everything out of pocket.

Word has gotten around about Castro's work, leading to a steady stream of related requests: soldiers, firefighters, police officers killed before he started the project, a few murder victims, police dogs.

"I get probably 10 to 20 requests a day — people sending me messages like, 'Hey, can you paint this person? This officer was my son. …' And I try to do as many as I can, but it's impossible to do them all," he says. "I kind of just have to pick and choose who I do."

A collage of digital paintings hangs in the office of Johnny Castro, a forensic composite artist for the Philly PD who creates portraits for police officers (including police dogs) in the U.S. that are killed in the line of duty, at Philadelphia Police headquarters on Thursday, Sept. 06, 2018.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
A collage of digital paintings hangs in the office of Johnny Castro, a forensic composite artist for the Philly PD who creates portraits for police officers (including police dogs) in the U.S. that are killed in the line of duty, at Philadelphia Police headquarters on Thursday, Sept. 06, 2018.

In February, he painted a Port Authority officer killed in the line of duty on Sept. 11, 2001. That led to two more works, commemorating a firefighter and a police officer also killed that day. He recently went to New York to present the portraits to the families and peers of the departed.

But to paint everyone killed in the line of duty on 9/11?

"It would be impossible," he says with a sigh. "Each of these takes about 12 hours to do. So I can only do one portrait, I would say, every two or three days. Two days is even rushing it."

So far, Castro has only painted one commemorative portrait of someone he knew personally: Staff Sgt. Jimmy McNaughton. They served together in Iraq. "He was shot and killed by a sniper while we were over there," he says with just a hint of a quiver in his voice. "I have him hanging in my office. I wear his KIA bracelet every day."

Castro acknowledges it can be emotional presenting his portraits to the families, but he generally has a workmanlike attitude about it.

"I've been doing it long enough now that it's just something that kind of comes natural," he says. In the beginning, the hardest part was tracking down decent photos of the deceased to guide him in his painting.

"A lot of times, cops don't have photos of themselves. You're working off a photo that's 10 years old, and you have to figure out what this person looked like 10 years later," he says. "Or the reference photos are so low-quality that you have to kind of make stuff up as you go, and you just want to make sure that the person you're painting — it ends up looking like that person."

That part's gotten easier as he's built his reputation. His Facebook page has become well-known among officers and their families, leading to a small network of helpful people. Finding pictures of specific badges and commendations has gotten easier for the same reason. "I just utilize everything I can find to put the portrait together," he says.

Castro grew up in the Mayfair section of Northeast Philadelphia and always had a creative side.

"I was the art nerd all the way through high school," he says. His dad, also a portrait artist, was a big influence. "He taught me a lot about proportions and shading. I credit a lot of what I do to him."

Castro was studying graphic design at Hussian College at 11th and Market Streets (it's now at 15th and Spring Garden Streets), but he quit to join the military after 9/11. He spent four years in the Army, including a tour in Iraq.

Officer Johnny Castro, a forensic composite artist for the Philadelphia Police Department, flips through a book of his digital portraits that he creates for police officers (including police dogs) in the U.S. that are killed in the line of duty at Police Headquarters.
Officer Johnny Castro, a forensic composite artist for the Philadelphia Police Department, flips through a book of his digital portraits that he creates for police officers (including police dogs) in the U.S. that are killed in the line of duty at Police Headquarters.

After returning home, he took a job with the Police Department and spent nine years working patrol with the 18th District in West Philadelphia.

That's when he heard that the department's longtime forensic artist was retiring. Castro was surprised; he didn't know the position existed. He quickly applied, submitted a portfolio, created a composite sketch of a suspect, and — waited. And waited.

"And then, like a year later, I got a call, and they said, 'You start Monday.'"

Now he spends his long days in the basement of Police Headquarters at Eighth and Race Streets. He's part of the two-person Graphic Arts Unit.

"It's always busy, but I just don't do the forensic art," he says. "We handle all the art for the department. So if they need a poster designed for new body cameras or something, I have to design it. So I'm either doing that or doing the forensic art.

"Ten, 15 years ago, they were doing like 250 sketches a year," he says. "But that number has gone down over time, just because of advances in DNA [technology] and cameras. There are security cameras everywhere, so the need for a forensic artist isn't there as much as it was 10 years ago."

Castro focuses his artistry on the portraits. No matter whom he's drawing, Castro starts with the eyes.

"I always hear from families, that's how they know their loved one. … It's either their eyes or their smile. Those are the two things that I try to get as perfect as I can."

The reaction, he says, has been overwhelmingly positive, but he's usually not there to present the artwork personally. He ships one out and starts on the next: "As long as the finished portrait makes it to the family, that's all I care about."