It’s often said that a good sign-maker changes the whole appearance of the town or city in which they work. In San Francisco, a small shop by the name of New Bohemia Signs has been quietly but effectively beautifying the city, with their hand-lettered artistry. In fact, it could be said that this little shop is responsible for spawning the contemporary sign-painting revival. An overstatement? Hardly, when you consider that some of America’s best-known sign-artists – Jeff Canham, Caitlyn Galloway, Josh Luke, Ken Davis and others – all learned their craft under the tutelage of New Bohemia’s Damon Styer. Many of them have, in turn, passed on the skills to others.
Recently, I had the chance to find out more about this sign-making powerhouse from Damon himself:
Could you tell us the history behind ‘New Bohemia Signs’? Also, why the name?
New Bohemia Signs was created in 1992, by Steve Karbo, who’d been involved in various entrepreneurial exploits in San Francisco for decades prior. I remember him telling me he was the first (or one of the first) businesses selling bell-bottom jeans on Haight Street, back before /during the “Summer of Love”.
There were still sign painters in San Francisco in ’92, but very few, and Karbo’s old-timey style-sense and knack for marketing helped N.B.S. take off immediately, as a sign shop offering exclusively hand-painted signs. I think within a year, he hired Yvette (“Eve”) Rutledge to help, and she’s got a preternaturally graceful hand and eye for design, which I think did much to establish demand for “New Bohemia” style signs. They partnered up and business grew exponentially, to the point that, by ’96, they’d decided to light out for less hectic urban environs, and moved to New Orleans, opening Mystic Blue Signs, which Eve still runs today.
They left New Bohemia under the management of Norma Jeanne Maloney, herself a sign painter of exquisite grace, but before long, she left to open her own shop, Red Rider Studios, nearby (which eventually she took with her to Austin). A few other people managed the shop for Steve and Eve, before I came by, inquiring about an apprenticeship in June of ’99. Maurice O’Carroll was handling it then, as well as servicing his own free-lance sign clientele. He said, “Come in tomorrow, you do a half-hour practice on your own time, every day. Then I’ll pay you $7/hr.”, and so I did.
A few months later, he’d found his freelance work had started demanding more time than would allow him to stay atop New Bohemia’s clients needs, and he recommended me to take over his role, which I did, basically transferring my apprenticeship over to Steve and Eve. I’d still practice at least a half hour each day, then document it and mail photographs to New Orleans. They’d call back with suggestions for what to practice the following week.
The arrangement proved untenable, and they decided to either close up shop, or sell it to me if I’d like. Not having any other income streams in the offing, their low asking price was enticing, and I found some friends to loan me the cash to swing it. So, here I am.
“New Bohemia” was a name chosen to reflect the then-burgeoning artsy hip climate of the Inner Mission neighborhood in which we were situated. Since then, I’ve read that my surname, Styer, is an anglicization of Steiger, which might just mean “from the hills”, or more specifically, “from the Styrian Alps”, which I’m choosing to believe is roughly analogous with the historical realm of Bohemia, although the analogy may be so rough as to be abjectly untrue.
What attracted you to sign-painting?
When I came looking for an apprenticeship at NBS, I’d recently begun trying to inculcate a ‘creative work ethic’ in myself, because I’d sussed out that in exercising my creative ‘muscles’ I was able to channel something much bigger and more beautiful than I could understand into existence. I’d say this insight came much later in life than it ought to have, after I spent much of the nineties laying relatively fallow, creatively, slogging away at a loathsome job, largely squandering whatever practice and skills I’d developed pursuing a BFA in painting, at the start of the decade.
With a few thousand dollars to tide me by in the near term, left over after some globe-wandering soul-seeking, I started looking for an apprenticeship somewhere. Initially, I called various Bay-area cabinetry shops, since I’d built assorted pieces of furniture for myself and for friends, but lacked any ‘finishing’ skills, and that seemed like an attractive thing to develop. None of the places I called wanted to take on an “apprentice without experience”, which maybe speaks to the deterioration of the concept of apprenticeship in this day and age.
I dropped in at New Bohemia, on a whim, since they were only five blocks from my house. I’d asked someone there a couple years earlier about an apprenticeship, also on a whim, and been spurned (which is just as well, as I wouldn’t have had the time for it back then), so I didn’t have high hopes – but this time, it worked! I feel like maybe I should start spinning this as, “Yeah, they turned me down for a job, so I came back and bought the place!”
But anyway: I could say “what attracted me to sign painting” was proximity. I’d taken a course in calligraphy as a child, and growing up, my doodles often involved letterforms, although little of the art I worked on at school did so. I drew and pasted up letters for posters and record jackets for a band I was in, in my twenties; but other than a basic understanding of letterforms and layout and a natural skill, primed to develop, for brushwork – oh, and what I’d guess you and all your readers might recognize as an easily understood, broadly shared and completely normal appreciation for the inherent beauty and charm of hand-lettering – the main things that attracted me to sign painting were the short commute and low start-up costs!
What do you think of the contemporary idea of ‘signs as art’, signs being displayed in art galleries and such-like?
Ah, y’know, pretty much whenever anyone asks me how I am or what’s going on, these days, I respond with, “Oh, the usual: signs, signs, everywhere signs, breaking up the scenery, breaking my mind”, and we share a chuckle or an eye roll, or whatever, because those half century old song lyrics point out how long it’s been a tiresome cliché to feel awash and overwhelmed by the ubiquity of signs. There are so many different ways signs, or even just parts of signs – a well-formed letter or a fading brushstroke, for example, or just a color combo – can affect us emotionally and intellectually, right?
Anyway, my art school education was geared toward “fine art” (viz. focused on releasing one’s muse, albeit with zero employment training) and I came out of it feeling, unfortunately, pretty stifled; like, enthralled with other artists’ concepts and work, but nearly incapable of coming up with any conceptual framework for my own art, commensurate with my technical skills. That’s certainly why I’m making my living in a commercial art/graphic design field, comfortable, to the extent I am, with being given assignments by clients: I know what this sign needs to say, my only task is to make it suitably pretty.
Having “something” to say, and a fixation on putting it somehow at cross purposes to actual words, within a medium (sign painting) that, to great extent, depends on direct verbal communication, is the puzzle I’m forever trying to solve for myself, when we’re approached by someone who’d like New Bohemia Signs to be part of an art show (a.k.a. making “signs without a client”). Fortunately, the other painters who’ve worked here don’t seem to get quite so hung-up about it.
I mean, I try so hard to resist “clever phrases” and pun-smithery, because I’m less interested in selling posters and t-shirts, than in striking some kind of numinous chord… or somehow finding how to apply this practice and these materials to tickle myself in some unique way… But in case you can’t tell, I’m a bit wordy, so, like, word play is a compulsion, and I all too easily succumb. Virtually every short set of words I read or hear or invent, that holds my attention for longer than a moment, gets subjected to, “How can I make that into a sign?”. I often doubt I’m in the “right” line of work for me, but if I’m a sign painter for any reason at all, it must be to mould words into visual art. Must get better at it.
Are there sign-makers and artist you take inspiration from, for your work?
I don’t know quite where to begin… I feel pretty parched for artistic passion and enthusiasm, for the most part, so I like when I see it in others, like, especially, the other painters in the shop. They’re a rather enthused lot, by and large! I think this is also why I get a kick out of teaching. The kids are so excited, it’s infectious.
Ken Davis, who used to work here, is certainly doing well for himself now, not least on account of his bubbly zest for sign painting. He’s been doing a little gallery work in collaboration with Colt Bowden, who is, as you may have already surmised, another guy with irrepressible zeal for the craft. They’re good to tap when my outlook’s grim.
We’ve worked on a few projects recently with Erik Marinovich, who’s plainly head over heels about lettering, and a lot of fun to work around. He shares an office with Jessica Hische, who’s got pretty keen taste-buds for a letter’s flavor.
I’ve been enjoying looking at the invented letters and “possible curse words” Jon Bocksel has been producing. They’re pretty good for shaking off the dreck of accumulated meaning, separating the sign and the signified, or some such thing.
Tauba Auerbach, who also worked here for a few years, appeals to every sublimated science-y, math-y artistic urge I’m possessed of, but too timid to explore.
I wish I’d devoted more of my professional life to date, approaching sign painting the way Gerhard Richter approaches painting, but I don’t expect I’m quite serious enough a man.
Usually, whichever one I just got finished with. As a matter of fact, right now we’re working on a billboard for out in front of our nearby Rainbow Grocery co-op. I’m not so in love with it at the moment – it’s in a delicate space, and feels like it could go off the rails quickly, because I’ve got everyone in the shop working on it and they’ve all got ideas coming into play that could ultimately collide with and/or hijack my overarching vision, such as it is. But I’m pretty optimistic, based on the enthusiasm of everyone involved, including the clients, that it’s gonna make shopping there an even more delightful experience than it already is, for me. It could end up feeling like, ‘Okay, I did this job for these clients, and got paid; but ultimately, I’ve given this gift to the City’, which feels pretty cool when it happens.
I’ve also done a few cornhole boards, relatively recently, for local wedding receptions: I think that may be a growth industry! (I don’t know if that’s a game familiar to Aussies: it seems to be rooted in the American southeast, but it’s definitely on the rise. I just like saying it. For the latest gig, the client sent me a file of design inspirations she titled “cornhole moodboard”, which just… I wanna use that again and again, with other clients: “Perhaps you might see something you like here on this cornhole moodboard?”)
[I am familiar with the game, although it’s not well-known in these parts. We do have our own cornhole set here at the shop, albeit not nearly as typographic as the ones pictured below.]
Could you tell a bit about your sign-painting classes?
That’s definitely the most rewarding part of the job for me right now! I’ve kinda always felt a bit like a caretaker for sign painting, or like… how to describe… like the industry got passed through this fine mesh strainer and I’m one of the viable seeds that made it through? Or no: like I’m a piece of manure, dropped onto the desolate landscape of sign painting in the wake of the vinylocalypse, here to fertilize the ground for nutritious crops of sign painters to come! Yeah, that’s more like it! Remember, up there, when I wrote “If I’m a sign painter for any reason at all”? Well, it’s not to mould words into visual art: it’s definitely to goose young whippersnapper signwriters along their way, to light a path for the people who are going to champion this craft in the coming century. I mean, my light’s perhaps not the brightest, but I can definitely steer you off some rocks! And mix up a few metaphors along the way!
I’ve been teaching weekend workshops, the past couple of years, once or twice a month, just basic introductory level stuff, for people who’d never touched a lettering quill before. We spend a day practicing basic strokes and tracing simple alphabets, then another day developing a pattern and lettering a signboard – and I’m frequently bewildered by how enthusiastic they are, after a day of repetitive stroke after stroke. Some really take to the meditative nature of the craft, the opportunity to focus their attention on such a narrow set of small, subtle, coordinated movements… Actually, maybe that’s just me: I don’t know what, necessarily, they’re taking to, individually, but I’m bowled over by how often I’ll hear how much fun they’re having, or “Best weekend ever!” And I’ve even had a handful of students hang out their sign painting shingles, in the wake of the class. When I started with the classes, friends would ask, “Aren’t you training your competition?”, and I’d respond, “Not unless they all start teaching their own sign painting classes.” And actually, that’s starting to happen: I saw an Instagram shot of an early student conducting a small brush lettering class at Cal State Fullerton, recently! This stuff happens fast! They’re gonna sweep me out of the way before long.
So, I’ve got to keep advancing, somehow. I just started teaching my “level 201” class, focused on script lettering. Whereas, in the first class, we focus on single-stroke gothic letters, and casual (or “speed”) letters, always paletting the brush out to its fullest natural width, in the script class, there’s a lot more modulation to the stroke width being developed, and different approaches taken to that. I’ve only taught one, thus far, but it went well, and students are clamoring for more. I’d like to maybe set up an intro-to-glass-gilding next…
What effect does creative signage have on a business, neighbourhood or city? You’ve been at it for a few years & have probably noticed results.
Well, for my own business, I’ve found several times in the past that, whenever I invest some time in sprucing up my storefront with new signage, business immediately spikes. We’ve been in our current shop space for three years now, and I haven’t focused the time and energy on decorating the storefront the way I’d like, partly because we haven’t really had any down time in that period. We’re simmering along at capacity, so I can’t even guess what the elaborate plans in my sketchbook are gonna lead to.
As for San Francisco, the City’s had no shortage of creativity on display since time immemorial. Nonetheless, back when I started with New Bohemia, Steve and Eve (and subsequently, Norma Jeanne over at Red Rider), had really established themselves as sources of a particular hand-crafted style that harkened back many decades. I walked into a situation wherein we were really respected and cherished as a premier source for “old fashioned” signs, and my challenge was to maintain that image, to the best of my abilities. But back then, there was definitely a greater sense of being unique, as though we were practically the only place churning out attractive hand-painted signs here. I’d just argue that the more attractive signs we’ve painted, the more attention they’ve gotten, and the more local businesses have chosen to get hand-painted signs; and thus, the more need has arisen for more sign painters.
It pans out in a lot of directions, too: people see a sign and they know they like it, but they’re not sure why. Maybe it’s because it’s hand painted – “I should get a hand painted sign!” And then, regardless of how appropriate is the design they’ve already had put together, or whether or not anyone but themselves is going to be in a position to appreciate its hand-painted-ness, they’re bent on getting a hand-painted sign! I can only applaud that urge. It may not result in the most beautiful or proud signs, but it’s an opportunity for practice, and if it works out well, it keeps hand lettering in the conversation and on the advance across the landscape.
We’re currently tending our niche as “sign painters to the tech industry”, which is pretty interesting on a lot of levels. Their assorted campuses are ersatz neighborhoods that we’re having a hand in transforming. The places where high tech intersects with our comparatively Luddite craft are interesting to chart. I was just thinking about that (well, really, I think about that a lot), watching the video link you recently sent me, talking of “a time before the industrial revolution, when there was no mass production”, as you pass some kind of sign foam substrate through a band saw. A few years back, we applied the budget allocated for getting a giant pattern printed, to instead purchasing a mechanical plotter with a pattern pouncing attachment: essentially the very same machine that ran the majority of sign painters out of business a few decades ago, churning out vinyl appliques! It’s a slippery slope! I enjoy navigating the digital divide, figuring out how to apply tech, while still striving to keep the work connected, as much as I can, to the way my arm swings from my shoulder – pencil-based design, and the brush being the final arbiter, etc. Let me underscore here: we don’t produce ANY vinyl lettering, or digital printing. Everything that comes out of New Bohemia Signs, comes off the end of a brush or roller (the exception that proves the rule).
You’ve trained up some very creative lettering artists such as Jeff Canham, Caitlyn Galloway, Josh Luke, Tauba Auerbach and Ken Davis, to name a few. Do you think there’ll ever be real competition in the lettering industry, or will it always be as positive and collegial as it is now?
I remember, again, back when I was starting, characterizing the old hands I’d meet as all having “wild hair, and one wandering eye, and conspiracy theories about all the other sign painters”. Nowadays, I’m well into the wild hair, but my eyes still seem to triangulate well enough, and I don’t think the other sign painters are conspiring as much as just, y’know, hustling, working hard, making a wave when they can – good times!
I’m sure, if – perish the thought – San Francisco’s economic bubble ever bursts (which, what folly!), those among us with keener marketing skills than I, might keep their heads above water, while the rest of us simmer in resentment. That sounds like the sort of thing I imagine went on in sign painting everywhere, at the dawn of the vinyl age: “Augh, why didn’t WE get that gig?!?”, stings a lot more when we don’t have a couple dozen other gigs in the pipeline.
As it is now, you do good work, you can expect to reap the adulation of your compadres.