Go East, Young Man: Sign Painter Josh Luke brings his talents to Boston
Boston is primed to be the next hub of the sign painting revival—it just doesn’t know it yet. Walking around the Victorian brownstones, it’s easy to imagine that few decades ago the city streets must have been flush with painted signs. Master artisans, along with fresh face graduates from the sign painting course at the Wagner School of Art, would be slapping down paint all over town. Boston is even known for its own style of gilding.
With such a rich past in the trade, it’s surprising to find the city now practically devoid of any proof of its role in sign painting history. There are only a handful of signs left by painters who have been long since retired. Boston’s last bastion in the craft, the Wagner School of Art, now under the name Butera, is closing it’s eighty year-old sign program next fall. This leaves the city in desperate need of someone to rekindle the memories of its tradition in hand painted signs. In Boston’s case, that someone is San Franciscan sign painter Josh Luke.
The string of events that lead Luke to the Northeastern hamlet go all the way back to his years in high school. Captivated by graffiti, he would spend his days drawing letters and then, after school, try to paint them on walls. At the time, he didn’t see this as something he could do as a career; it was just for fun. After pursuing a degree in art at UC Santa Cruz, Luke moved to San Francisco. Initially he looked for jobs as a tattoo apprentice, so he could incorporate doing something artistic into his daily work. But before his talents could be snatched up by a tattoo parlor, a better opportunity presented itself. A friend of Luke’s, Tauba Auerbach, happened to be looking for a replacement for her sign painting job with New Bohemia Signs. Intrigued by the position, Luke ended up taking the gig.
Auerbach planned to train Luke before she moved to New York, but she was only able to give him a brief introduction to the craft before she had to leave. This left New Bohemia Signs with only two employees: Luke and the owner Damon Styer. From the beginning, Luke was in awe of Styer’s skill with a brush. Styer had a knack for making even the most perilous sign job seem easy. “I watched him perfectly letter a sign while balancing on a scaffold four stories up. He had to lean out over the street to do it.” Luke explained as he demonstrated how Styer precariously perched on one foot. Determined to make a good impression on his new boss, Luke threw himself into his first assignment; painting a paragraph of teeny tiny lettering on a sign for a law office. Faced with a task difficult for even an accomplished sign painter, Luke muddled through it with his limited skills as best he could. “I literally broke down afterwards because I really wanted to impress Damon. The experience was a good kick in the ass. I realized there was a lot I needed to learn. That’s when I got serious [about sign painting].”
Luke started with New Bohemia in 2005 and saw the operation grow over the five years he was there. The experience came full circle when Luke took on his own apprentice, Ken Davis. One of the great things to come from his mentoring experience was that Luke found he really enjoyed teaching. To open up avenues to teach, Luke decided to go back to school for his Masters degree at the Art Institute of Boston. He packed up to move East along with his girlfriend Meredith, who was also accepted to a master’s program in the city.
No longer under New Bohemia’s wing, Luke chose to start up his own company. In looking for a name to call his new venture, he wanted to honor his New Bohemia heritage by calling his company Best Dressed Signs. The namesake comes from when Luke, Styer, and sign painter Jeff Canham would occasionally go out to jobs dressed in suits and fedoras. This entertaining painting spectacle may soon be a staple in Boston, as Luke is hoping to revive the tradition on the East Coast.
Since tattooing and sign painting are kindred spirits—early sign painters would also pick up tattoo work when the weather was bad—Luke chose to contact several tattoo studios to see if they needed sign work. Chameleon Tattoo in Harvard Square was the first to jump at the chance. For Chameleon, Luke made two elaborately painted carnivalesque signs and a beautifully gilded window sign. The store owner was so overjoyed about the outcome that he took their old foam core sign and publicly demolished it into bits.
One of Luke’s next gigs was to paint a sign for Orchard Skate shop. The shop was in clear need of a sign, seeing as when Luke approached them about work they were still sporting a not so recent Grand Opening banner. Appreciative of their new sign, Orchard offered Luke a chance to exhibit his work in their gallery space. Luke saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate to a broader audience that sign painting is still viable and relevant. “When I look at signs, I see more than just something you pass by on the street. I see the artistry in them. This show lets people take the time to really look.” In addition to his own work, he wanted to showcase a range of skill levels and styles from established craftsmen to the newer generation of sign painters.
He didn’t need to search far to find talented individuals with work to display. Luke had recently started the sign painting society called the Pre-Vinylites. He set up the group as a way to bring together the sign painting community, but also to encourage less experienced painters and others who might be interested in lettering, especially young kids who are into graffiti.
The show was a success. When it opened there was already people lining up around the block to get in. Visitors got to expand their ideas of what a sign is. Most signs were traditional paint on wood, but a few pieces used more unique substrates, such as, vinyl records and antique saws. Luke even brought the exhibition far beyond the commercial realm and demonstrated sign painting as fine art with his piece “Look into the Eye”. It’s reminiscent of 17th century Dutch still-life paintings that make the viewer contemplate the future of his own mortality and the emptiness of material things. Luke deftly tackles this feat with the clever use of images on layers of glass and mirrors.
Much like his mentor Styer, Luke makes the profession look simple, but even he concedes that it’s not easy and he is still learning. “Sign painting is constantly recovering from a string of frustrating moments. I don’t want to romanticize it. It’s brutal, hard work and you are out there constantly fighting the elements. I see it like an extreme form of painting.” Clearly the challenge of the craft doesn’t stifle Mr. Luke. He seems to feed off of adversities. It will be exciting to see where the challenge will push his work in the future.
PHOTOS BY: Josh Luke
Tales from the Neon Workshop
My short foray into neon has not made me into a master of all that glows, but it has introduced me to some amazing artists and craftsmen in the field. I took Lili Lakich’s Neon Workshop, which runs for 10 weeks and takes neon neophytes through the whole process of making a neon work of art. Lili has been working with neon since the the late sixties and shares her extensive knowledge about the artform with her students.
As part of the workshop, my class also got to meet tube bender Brian Currie of Nights of Neon and try our luck at bending glass tubes. The attempt at bending makes you quickly realize why it takes ten years to truly command the craft. Above are the pieces that students designed during the workshop. All the tubes were bent by Brian Currie, with the exception of the neon fish which was bent by neon artist Michael Flechtner.
MONA’s Neon Cruise Comes To Glendale
Want to get a different perspective on Los Angeles? Well, then why don’t you try getting a glimpse of the city at night from a top an open-air double decker bus. Starting in June and running through September, the Museum of Neon Art gives tours on Saturday nights that take you to see the city’s beloved neon signs, as well as, share some of the stories behind them.
In honor of the future site of the museum’s home, there will be a special tour on Saturday April 28th that introduces guests to all things a-glow in the city of Glendale. The tour will be given by L.A.’s go-to neon guide, Eric Lynxwiler, so don’t miss out!
PHOTO BY: Thomas Hawk
Sign Painting has infiltrated TYPO San Francisco!
With graphic designers like Jessica Hische making hand drawn type a hot commodity in the design world, it was only a matter of time before sign painting was rediscovered by the graphic community. Last year at TypeCon in New Orleans, the sign shop Mystic Blue Signs was brought in to offer a sign painting workshop for type enthusiasts. This year TYPO San Francisco has followed suit by having San Franciscan sign painting darlings New Bohemia Signs teach a lettering workshop. If you missed out, it looks like New Bohemia will be offering more workshops in the future. Hit them up if you want more details.
Sign Painting Workshop at New Bohemia in San Francisco
For those of you who missed out on the sign graphics workshop last weekend in Los Angeles, don’t fret. This Saturday and Sunday (March 24th and 25th) New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco is holding a sign painting seminar. For more details about it email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Damon Styer
Los Angeles Sign Painting Workshop Tomorrow
Tomorrow Saturday March 17th the luck of the Irish extends to sign painters as there will be sign graphics workshops held at Los Angeles Trade Tech College from 8am - 4pm. Renowned craftsmen in the sign industry will be presenting tips and tricks in sign painting, splash windows, sign installation and car wraps. I leave you with some walls signs painted by 3rd semester students to entice you.
Sign of the Day: Hello Hello
Full disclosure…I’ve decided to practice what I preach and learn how to sign paint, as well as, learn about how to create neon signs. In class last week, there was this cute little sign with script and convex letters drying on the table. It would catch my eye each time I passed it.
Turns out the piece was done by 4th semester student Martha Quintero. It is amazing to think that she went from learning basic brushstrokes to full-on lettering in less than 2 years. If you would like to contact Martha about her work, her email is email@example.com.
Sign Painting Workshop in Los Angeles
A little known fact about LA is that it has one of the last remaining programs in which you can formally learn sign painting from a master craftsman. Established in 1924, the Sign Graphics course at Los Angeles Trade Technical College provides a way to jump start a career into becoming a Journeyman sign painter. In only 2 years, as opposed to the traditional 5-10 year shop apprenticeships, the LATTC course prepares students with intensive instruction in all aspects of sign making.
The program is currently run by salty sign painter, Ralph “Doc” Guthrie. Doc runs his class the way a drill sergeant runs basic training. But don’t let his “no nonsense” teaching approach put you off. Doc’s fully invested in each student and is more than willing to share his knowledge and passion for the craft with those who are eager to learn. His reputation as an excellent teacher is what keeps the class enrollment spilling over to a wait list every semester.
Unfortunately, the popularity of the class has not shielded it from the recent statewide budget cuts. The cuts made basic supplies scarce and equipment upkeep a luxury. As a way to help raise funds for the class and do something for the sign painting community in general, one of Doc’s former students, sign painter Emmanuel Sevilla, has organized a one day sign painting workshop on Saturday March 17th at L.A. Trade Tech. There will be painting demonstrations and presenters, such as Nick Barber who will demonstrate splash windows, Tom Clarke will be showcasing sign painter tips and tricks, Ordway Supply Co is demoing car wraps, and Joe Jarreau will be showing installation techniques.
The price for the workshop is $30 for students and $40 for professionals. For those who can not attend but are interested in donating to the program please see the information in the flyer above.
If you’re interested in sign painting or just looking to brush up on your skills, definitely come by and check it out. See you there!
Sign of the Day: ABC Takenobu Igarashi Inspired Mural
If you’ve ever seen Takenobu Igarashi’s work, you get a sense that it has a bit of an identity crisis. It doesn’t want to be limited by the dimension in which it was created.
His early work in graphics, Igarashi designed intricate letter forms that defied their two-dimentional world, making them appear to be dynamic structures coming off from the page. Igarashi later focused his talents on sculpture where his design background influenced him to make very graphic looking pieces that try to embody both 2-D and 3-D space at the same time.
When you come across the ”ABC” mural on Main Street in Venice, you can instantly recognize Igarashi as it’s inspiration. It is not an elaborate piece of graffiti, but a mural done by American Apparel creative director Iris Alonso that celebrate the style of Igarashi’s earlier work.
A Guiding Light: Neon Artist Lili Lakich
With the golden years of neon past their heyday in the 80’s, it looked like many of those lit-up gas-filled tubes were on the verge of going dim. Instead it turned out that neon was poised to make a comeback, even going so far as being color inspiration for fashion later in the decade. Neon’s reinvention owes much credit to the artist Lili Lakich. In 1980, she established her studio in downtown Los Angeles and a year later started the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) with fellow neon artist Richard Jenkins. Both MONA and Lili’s studio shared the same space. This made it the hotspot in Los Angeles for all things neon. Her studio space attracted a lot of attention from Hollywood producers and location managers. “I couldn’t keep [location managers] away. They were always coming by my studio.” Pretty soon, neon started popping up in various commercials, music videos and movies.
As a young child, Lili was captivated by neon signs she saw during cross-country trips with her family. There was something ethereal about colored lights against the dark backdrop of a night sky. She started to view neon more than just flashy advertising; it was a way to paint using light. Lili went on to pursue art at the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York. Since Lili believed that art could be open to other mediums beyond traditional drawing, painting, and photography, she soon lost interest in the classical art education taught at Pratt. Lili eventually returned to her initial love of signs. She tried to get an apprentice position at a neon sign shop, but was flat out refused. One kind employee gave her some scrap neon tubes, a wiring diagram and told her where to buy a transformer. Lili’s tenacious spirit motivated her to learn about neon through trial and error. “If you can visualize it, you can get it done. You have to be dogged about it.”
The bold graphic look of tattoos and military insignia Lili had seen while her father was in the army is where she drew inspiration for her earlier work. These influences became her muse for one of her favorite pieces of this time, “Blessed Oblivion”. It symbolizes Lili’s tombstone and a memorial for her four year relationship with Gayle Rendleman. Even though the work had a personal meaning to Lili, ”Blessed Oblivion” also resonated with others. “Of all the works exhibited at the Museum of Neon Art over many years, this is the one people wanted to photograph…young latino kids. bikers. baby boomers. All kinds of people,” Lili recalls in her book Lakich: For Light. For Love. For Life. It even caught the attention of a museum in Japan, but Lili preferred that the piece stay in the U.S. Concerned about iconic american signs, such as LA’s Brown Derby, that are being bought by galleries overseas she comments, ”Our cultural heritage is being sold off.”
Lili doesn’t need to wear her heart on her sleeve; her art does that for her. Through her work, she lets us into her world with subjects ranging from friends and family dear to her to causes she is passionate about. Many of her works reference art and artists she admires. A French critic took note of this at her show in Paris with the praise “comme Matisse, comme Leger” (like Matisse, like Leger). Though neon is still prominent in her pieces, Lili frequently adds found objects to enhance the stories she tells with her work. “At this point, I’d rather go to a swap meet than a museum…I learn more from them, I see more at them.”
31 years later, Lili is still working out of her downtown LA studio. She keeps the tradition of neon alive by sharing her knowledge with others, having been teaching neon classes since the days when MONA was still housed in her studio space. Lili says she learns as much from her students as they do from her. She has even partnered up with one of her former students, Kristie Kaler, to create the neon symbol for Forever Gay Rainbow, the company she co-owns with Kaler.
Between her art and commissioned commercial signs, Lili’s prolific work has made an indelible mark on neon’s history. Even though the popularity of neon is waning and materials are harder to come by, Lili will not give up the medium she’s been enamored with since childhood. No matter what happens, she will always find a way to make her stories glow.