By Hand

Amid the low hum of industrial-size fans in a shotgun-style warehouse near bustling South Lamar Boulevard, Gary Martin of Gary Martin Signs hunches over a set of sketches on onionskin paper, trying to figure out what to do with box lettering that spells out “Powerhouse.” About 20 small paper cups filled with paint sit haphazardly next to paintbrushes, rulers and cans of spray paint on the table behind him. Books, rolls of paper and CD cases line the shelves on the wall and tiny dots of paint speckle everything. The space looks like a cross between a body shop, mad scientist laboratory and art studio.

“I might want to electrify them, the way I did Torchy’s,” he says.

Martin is a sign painter in Austin, and though his name might not be a household one, his work is famous throughout town. Are you familiar with the mid-century modern, teal-and-red P. Terry’s sign? Martin designed that. What about the charged yellow-and-red letters that spell “Torchy’s Tacos” with the little devil in the middle? That was his design, too. The colorful and campy signs at Threadgill’s, Esther’s Follies and Dirty Martin’s Place? All his.

He counts himself as one of only a handful of local sign-painting artists—a throwback to the time before computer sketches chipped away at the artistry; and before vinyl printing made it cheap and easy to put up generic signage.

“Hand-painted signs and murals add warmth to a city,” says Joe Swec of Joe Swec Sign Painting, who is famous for the “Willie for President” mural on South Congress Avenue. “One of the reasons I started was because when I grew up in the Bay Area and would go into San Francisco, I used to see how all the hand-painted signs gave the city a much more humanistic atmosphere as opposed to a strip mall with manufactured vinyl signs. I wanted to do that for Austin when I moved here.”

In a world overrun with fast-moving everything, and with alternate and cheaper methods to create signs, it’s clear that old-school sign painters are dedicated to the craft and take great pride in the slow, handmade aspect. “I think now with how much technology we have and how we communicate through social media, anything that is tangible and handmade has more appreciation,” says sign painter Norma Jeanne Maloney of Red Rider Studios.

Maloney’s career started in 1984 when she began painting signs for the racetracks in Lexington, Kentucky. She honed her skills as a sign painter in San Francisco when she opened Red Rider Studios, a vintage-style sign and commissioned-works shop. In the middle of her sign-painting career, she took a break to become a truck driver before eventually moving to Austin. She’s since painted signs for Hops & Grain Brewing, Tamale House and Stubb’s Bar-B-Q. “We were warned in the eighties, when the vinyl machine was introduced, that it would ruin hand-painted signs,” Maloney says.

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The modernization didn’t exactly ruin the craft, but the business did take a hit for a while. Luckily, it seems to be experiencing a renaissance—especially with the popular retro designs and vintage styles that lend themselves so well to the craft. “Sign painting is a rare art form these days, but it has increased in popularity recently with pop culture spotlighting typographic design,” says Andrew Manning of Manning Signs. Starting in 2009, Gary Martin mentored Manning for three years on the importance and integrity of letter work. In 2012, Manning began his own business, and now does logo design, window lettering, indoor mural design and painting, chalkboards and even restroom door lettering for restaurants and bars such as Turntable Eatery, Buck Wild and North Italia.

Also boosting the popularity of the art form is Austin’s colorful and intricate handcrafted murals and elaborate wall-size signage found around town. “There’s nothing better than starting out with a window or a piece of wood or a side of a building and within a couple of days, you’ve created something that’s living art,” says Maloney. “And the best part is that you can see your work when you’re out!”

All of the painters we spoke with say they’re hopeful about the future of hand-painted signs, especially locally. “Austin is a progressive city, so people tend to want good-quality, artistic stuff,” Martin says. Still, like any working artists, they’re always watchful for any downward shifts in the economy, because they know that art is usually the first thing cut from the budget. Maloney says she’s not too worried about it, though—partly because she has a plan B. “I think people will always want something that’s quality-driven; still…I keep my [commercial driver’s license] current just in case I have to go on the road.” 

By Jennifer Simonson • Photography by Melanie Grizzel

For more information:

Gary Martin at garymartinsigns.com or call 512-479-6160

Joe Swec at facebook.com/joeswecsignpainting or call 805-453-8964

Norma Jeanne Maloney at redriderstudios.com or call 512-906-4952

Andrew Manning at signpaintingaustin.com or call 512-924-6389