DFW Sign Painters Underscore Craft's Technique, Tradition
Sean Starr coats his angled Fitch brush in the white, oil-based 1 Shot paint. With a steady hand, he slowly rounds the brush to perfectly line the outside of an uppercase O. The sign reads “MORRISSEY & MARR” in tall, uppercase, pointed-serif letters — a nod to his favorite group, the Smiths. In the short time since he and his wife, Kayleigh, started painting, the fumes have become sharp in the air, but neither is complaining.
“The paint fumes don’t bother us much anymore," Sean says.
It’s no surprise that fumes have become commonplace to the Starrs. Since they moved to Denton in 2011, Sean and Kayleigh have spent most of their time painting hundreds of signs for businesses across Dallas-Fort Worth. Their work can be found on windows and walls at establishments such as the coffee house Mudsmith, home-furnishings store Coco & Dash and European eatery Mercat Bistro.
A decade ago, you might have doubted a profession like sign painting existed, but today it's en vogue. And don't mistake it for just another hipster, artisan trend; the best sign painters have worked at their trade since long before it was trendy or profitable.
Because of this skill, the Starrs have gained a reputation, completing projects for Shinola; Indian Motorcycles; the Toadies; and Draper James, Reese Witherspoon’s store in Highland Park Village. The owner of Big D Speed Shop, one of the Starrs' longtime clients, observed their success showing in galleries and offered to help them open one in Dallas' Design District.
At this month's opening of Starr Gallery on Pittsburg Street, the couple displayed typographic work on canvas, glass signage and bowls embellished with designs using eglimosé — a complex glass-painting process that incorporates gold leaf for a stunning finish. The eglimosé glass work the Starrs did for the Toadies album Heretic was also on display.
Much of the Starrs' work is commercial. They also accept residential commissions, working with architects and designers to create backsplashes, gild mirrors and embellish walls. But at Starr Gallery, the focus is equally on fine art.
While living in the Bay area, the Starrs became part of a community of artists that was determined to keep the old sign-painting techniques alive in the face of newer, competing technologies like printing on vinyl.
Graffiti artist Andres Guerrero caught wind of the Starrs' work and eventually showed it at his gallery in San Francisco, giving the couple their fine-art world debut. The show sold out before it opened. Sean says it created opportunities for them at other galleries across the U.S. and abroad and that the couple saw the same results each time — they'd sell out before opening day.
Lately, clients such as J. Hall & Co. Gentleman Tattooers have requested eglimosé. Starr Studios is one of only five or six sign painting shops in the U.S. that does it.
“At the turn of the last century, sign painters started to incorporate it more. It’s the top shelf of what a sign painter does. It takes years and years to be able to offer it,” Sean says. “You can’t fudge the process. It’s very complicated and difficult, but it looks spectacular.”
In the Design District, Sean and Kayleigh Starr are still painting the wall of their gallery. Next up: the letter S. A sign painter’s beginning education focuses on building muscle memory in the hand. The first strokes are vertical, horizontal, curves.
“The letter S is the hardest letter to master when you are learning,” Sean says.
Putting a brush to the brick wall at their studio is actually the last step in the Starrs' sign-creation process. Before they spend a full day or longer painting a sign, they have to conceive, draw, create guides and outline the area to be painted.
Once he creates a design, Sean plots it digitally, prints it out on large sheets of paper and adheres the sheets together with tape to become a pattern for the design. The entire wall's design is broken down into different, large, strung-together sheets.
Next, each line of the design must be perforated. Some sign painters use rotary cutters, which look like pizza cutters with a fine-pointed, saw-tooth edge. They're rolled over the lines, with cardboard as the backing.
Starr Studios found and purchased a rare Electro Pounce machine, which it rehabbed into working condition. It's the size of a large chalk board, but has a current running through it, and it hangs on a wall in their studio. When a charged needle touches the back board, it leaves a little burn hole in the paper pattern. Once the paper is completely perforated, the pattern is pounced onto the surface with loose chalk. The chalk pattern on the wall serves as a guide for painting.
Sean began hand painting signs when he was a kid growing up in San Antonio. His father owned Starr Kustom Paint, which adorned hot rods with pinstripes, flames and lettering. Sean learned the trade from his dad, effectively apprenticing under him. It took four years of doing what he calls “grunt work” — sweeping floors and taking out trash — before he was allowed to touch a brush.
Sean also learned a lot from Mexican sign painters who were working in San Antonio in the late 1980s.
“These guys would show up and paint the signs in the window — 'sale' and whatnot,” he says. They taught him how to use the correct brushes.
After his father died in the mid-'90s, Sean moved to Seattle and started working in a sign-making shop.
“There was a period of five or six years where everybody wanted to distance themselves from paint work because it wasn’t cutting edge enough,” he says. “The shop that I got a job at, we did vinyl and the early phases of digital print graphics. I worked there for several years and despised every minute of it, but I learned a lot about computers."
When Sean moved to San Francisco in 2005, Kayleigh wasn't yet in the picture. He had just gone through a divorce and needed a change, so he decided to move and open a studio.
“I vowed to do only painted work, and that’s all I’ve done since,” he says.
There Sean found a community of sign painters that had all dug in their heels, committing to doing only traditional painted work. The solidarity attracted the attention of documentarians Sam Macon and Faythe Levine, who interviewed sign-painting artists like the Starrs all over the U.S. In 2012, Sean was featured in their documentary, Sign Painters.
“We all decided on our own that we were going to be stubborn and stick to what we knew for years," he says. "From about 2004 through 2009 there was a lot of hand-painted sign people crossing paths. … A bunch of us ended up in the movie."
Sean was traveling a lot, and during a trip to the ski town Big Bear, he met Kayleigh. She worked at a coffee shop, and they became acquainted through the slam-poetry scene. After they married, Sean brought Kayleigh into the business of sign painting, teaching her the trade like his father had taught him.
For Kayleigh, learning to paint signs was difficult but fun.
“I think it was challenging because I’m anal retentive. It’s a hard thing to learn," she says. "It’s not so much of a challenge; maybe an adventure.”
Sean is still training Kayleigh on the eglimosé technique, but he says she’s 80 percent of the way there.
“She is hands on now on almost every project alongside me. Took quite a few years to get to that point,” he says.
The couple eventually set their sights on moving to Denton. They had family in the area, and there was nothing tying them to California anymore.
“I became friends with the owners of a coffee shop [in Denton]. They kept throwing it in front of me: ‘You should move here; there’s lots you could do here.’” Sean says. “We checked it out, thought it would be a good move, and it has been.”
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The Starrs ended up doing a lot of work for the shop owner, Joey Hawkins. Now they rent their workspace from him. With feet firmly planted in North Texas, Sean says that “good move” turned out to be even more fortunate than he expected. He and Kayleigh have connected with people who have invested in their business, and they're excited about their next phase as gallery owners.
In addition to showing their work by appointment in the gallery space, the Starrs will be offering curated shows throughout the year. This summer, Chris Brown of Refueled Magazine is curating a mixed-media show of photography, painting and objects focusing on American craftsmanship. Actor Jason Lee has also promised to show an exhibit of his photography at their gallery within the next few months.
“I’ve been doing this for over 25 years now. I’ll be 49 in a couple of days,” Sean says. “Where we’re at right now, it’s taken years and years to get to this point.”
Sign painter and muralist Roy Warren Lunt looks around the sunny, high-ceilinged dining room during lunchtime at Cartwright's Ranch House in Denton. The walls are adorned with his paintings. He points out a “wanted” sign that features a hamburger.
“Do you see anything hidden there?” he asks. The painting isn't what it seems at first glance. The hamburger harbors a villain's face, with the tomatoes positioned as eyes and the onion posing as a row of gritted teeth.
Lunt enjoys creating secret messages. He wants his work to be clever.
“I love to mess with lettering and see what I can do with it, making an image two things or three things,” he says. “M.C. Escher is my favorite artist.” Some of his favorite work reveals his love of ambigrams, words that can be read properly whether oriented upside down or right side up. His personal logo is an ambigram of his name.
Lunt has worked on hundreds of signs for clients in DFW. In addition to Cartwright's, they include Cretia’s in Bishop Arts, Parker and Barrow in Bishop Arts, Mama’s Daughters diners, Mad Records, Atomic Candy, Lucky Lou’s, Bearded Monk and Denton County Brewing Co. He's also done some work — T-shirts and a painted door front — for the band Brave Combo.
He started his career doing carpentry and roofing houses in the 1970s but found that sign painting was more appealing. His grandfather was a sign painter, and he admired his skill and the inherent flexibility of working for oneself. “I can do this," he thought.
"I went around places that needed their signs repainted and repainted their signs," Lunt said. "That was good training because you could see what somebody had already done.”
Lunt says that training was a good start, but he soon found that his ability was lacking when he took on a job painting mini boards for the State Fair of Texas. He duplicated previous bad sign-painting work, and his client wouldn’t pay for them.
“It was crap. I wasn’t that good yet,” Lunt says. His sign painting-failure was a wake-up call, and he started reading books and learning about lettering styles.
Lunt took a job at Metro Signs in Dallas. It was one of the bigger sign companies and specialized in real-estate listings. Lunt’s job was to legibly fit all the information onto large signs on properties.
“All day long, lettering in those spaces — that’s how I learned to letter,” he said. He learned about kerning, the spacing between letters, and leading, the white space vertically between lines of text. After working there for a year, he felt he finally had a handle on lettering.
In Lunt’s many years of sign painting, he’s seen the trends change many times. He went through the late '70s trend of airbrushing everything. The sign-painting work then involved a lot of “shiny metal” looks with two or three drop shadows on every graphic element.
Then in the mid-'80s, sandblasted wood signage became trendy. These signs featured lettering in relief to a background that looked carved out, and making these signs required a steady hand and precision with a sandblasting tool on a soft wood like cedar or redwood.
In the late '80s, as desktop publishing became popular, technology allowed for vinyl sign printing. The vinyl period decimated traditional sign-painting work for a good decade. Businesses opted for fast and cheap over artisan-made signs that took planning and time to execute.
Sean Starr also suffered during that vinyl signage boom.
“During the era that computers almost wiped everything out, everybody diversified because it was survival," he says. "Now I’m seeing it kind of reversed. People are going into different niches of talent they might have."
Today Lunt sees the trend of “hipster lettering,” which he defines as many different lettering styles crammed together. “There is a side of me that wants to do stuff to mock it,” he says.
Now that sign painting is fashionable again, Lunt has seen many young upstarts try to get pieces of the pie without proper training.
“Being able to letter in the moment is actually what being a sign painter is or what it used to be in the day," Lunt says. "It’s become something different.”
Starr also sees an increase in interest for sign painting, and he believes that in the long run, hand-painted signs will be dominant.
“I do think that there’s a trend element to it right now with the maker movement,” he says. “But so many of us have been doing it for so long.”
This is partly because it takes years to become good enough to make a living from sign painting. Only one college in the U.S. still teaches the art: Los Angeles Trade-Tech. And most traditional sign painters were apprentices for many years before starting their own shops. True finesse can only be developed by hearing the wisdom passed around by more experienced sign painters, Starr says.
“’Sign painters welcome anybody who wants to come in and learn the trade, with the caveat that they take the time to learn the historically accepted task of the trade,” he says. “In other words, you can’t learn from watching YouTube videos.”
The exterior of J. Hall & Co. Gentlemen Tattooers is impossible to miss on the barren strip of Lamar Street in Dallas.
Daniel Driensky and Sarah Reyes
The bright red and gold painted exterior of J. Hall & Co. Gentleman Tattooers is a feast for the eyes on a particularly barren strip of Lamar Street.
“You can’t miss us, so that helps,” proprietor Josh Hall says of his tattoo parlor. His storefront wasn’t always this spectacular. About four and a half years ago, when he opened his parlor, he knew he needed something that would communicate his aesthetic to passersby. He sought out a sign painter — and found Starr Studios.
“When I opened, I had a specific look in mind," Hall says. "I wanted a very Old World feel.” He commissioned Starr to paint a hanging wooden sign above the door and the window. Then he expanded his parlor space and had another window for Starr to paint and gild in gold leaf. Next, Starr designed the front archway.
Today, the entire storefront is covered in Starr's detailed filigree and lettering.
“I personally feel like having hand-painted and handcrafted stuff is the only way to go,” Hall says. “It’s inspiring.”
Hall is just one of hundreds of businesses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that have employed sign painting as a way to invite customers and give each space a soul.
When restaurateur Conner Cupit is preparing to open a new location of his franchise Rusty Taco, he takes a look at the physical space of his future restaurant and its neighborhood to make decisions about the brand and market. Cupit hired Starr Studios to add the finishing touches to Rusty Taco's Denton location.
“People really like sitting in an environment that [Starr Studios] has brought to life,” Cupit says.
He found that the signage really helped enhance the brand of Rusty Taco.
“I tell my team, ‘Sean’s coming. When Sean leaves, this place is going to come to life.’”
In September 2015, Ben Esely opened the craft-beer bottle store and growler bar Bearded Monk in Denton. As an active member in the Denton arts scene, Esely wanted to do something to bring together Dentonites and help the arts community while adding a little more art to Denton. He found Lunt on Instagram and recognized his ability to re-imagine a space.
“At Cartwright’s, he turned that boring back wall into something fun,” Esely says.
A section of Warren Lunt's Rube Goldberg-esque mural design, painted by volunteers, on the side wall of Denton's Bearded Monk shop.
Esely reached out to Lunt and presented him with a creative challenge. He asked Lunt to design a mural that would embody Bearded Monk's aesthetic but also be feasible as a group project. Lunt agreed and took inspiration from old Time magazines and Budweiser ads from the 1920s. His final design features long-eared rabbits operating a Rube Goldberg-esque brewing machine, complete with spigots, tubes and gears.
Esely then planned the painting event, a fundraiser for the Greater Denton Arts Council. Contributors not only got to wield a paintbrush, but they also got an early taste of La Lechuza, the new s'mores stout from Four Corners Brewing Co. More than 30 people contributed to the painting during the first week of November 2015. Many of them signed their names at the end of the wall's mural. Esely says the event raised $750 for GDAC.
Both Esely and Lunt were initially concerned about the quality of the resulting mural because it's tricky to paint on brick, but they both say they were "really impressed with the clean lines" executed by the novice artists.
Besides the artistic contribution sign painting and mural art offer a business or a neighborhood, they can also act as passive advertising and branding. The return on investment for hiring a sign painter may not directly translate into units sold or an increase in patronage, but business owners have noticed an uptick in social media tagging.
About a year ago, Joey Turner, co-owner of Brewed in Fort Worth, wanted to adorn the side of his restaurant with a “gift to the city."
"I wanted to create a place that the city was proud of,” he says. He found Starr Studios and commissioned a piece that incorporated a cowboy with the slogan “Love the Fort / Worth the Love.”
That image, designed by Starr Studios, became a logo and brand for Brewed.
“Right from the beginning, people starting taking photos in front of it,” Turner says, adding that it's been shared on Instagram using the hashtag #lovethefort thousands of times. “We see it tagged every day.”
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