New Bohemia Signs goes to town

[Alyson Kuhn] Earlier this week, we showcased Sign Painters, by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon. When I was reading the book, the name New Bohemia Signs kept cropping up. I amused myself by wondering whether New Bohemia Signs might be in a town called New Bohemia. When I read that it’s in San Francisco, I was incredulous. How could I, a native, never have heard of this amazing enterprise—which has been here since 1992? How could I have driven right past it on Ninth Street? At the next opportunity—the Sunday morning after Thanksgiving—I drove right up and laughed out loud at the sign.

Sign painter Caitlyn Galloway’s demonstration A shows the sequence of brushstrokes.

Then I called proprietor Damon Styer to invite myself over. I told him how much I liked his sign, and he said, “I’m embarrassed that it’s still really just a placeholder—rolled and brushed over the previous tenant’s sign—for our long-procrastinated plans to completely redecorate the whole storefront.” Aha, the move to Ninth Street was recent! When I visited the next Friday morning, painting was happening, and it was fairly mesmerizing to watch. When I saw a sign that said TINCTURES, I actually exclaimed, “Oh, oh, oh, who is that for?”

Styer explained that the sign was for an imaginary enterprise, for a gallery show that would be opening in exactly one week at Subliminal Projects on West Sunset in Los Angeles. New Bohemia Signs: East on Sunset would be an entire installation of faux storefronts, which is to say, storefronts drawn directly onto the gallery walls, as a backdrop for the painted signs.

At the gallery opening (l to r): Corinne Matesich beneath her TINCTURES sign, with Caitlyn Galloway, and Damon Styer sporting his painting apron over a suit

I asked Matesich how she came up with her plan for painting the sign. She smiled, “If you’re already eating a bowl of raw micro-greens and tempeh, you’re pretty thoughtful. Adding an eye-dropper of concentrated, herbal cure-all is, to me, a step beyond reason. When I was talking with Damon about the sign, I knew I wanted faceted letters, and I wanted the rainbow, and I wanted it to be over the top. Damon reminded me that I would need to mix 36 colors [four for each of nine letters] to pull that off. I nearly backed down.”

Corinne Matesich’s 27 paint cups of soft pastel tints

Matesich continued, “But, we started scheming, and realized that if I could get nine colors I liked, that were close together in their hue saturation, then I’d be in a good starting place. Using white for the highlight in each letter would allow me to only mix 27 shades, so that was a good way to simplify my process. The task became doable once I had a logical, methodical process for it. The sign I wanted to be the most loose became the one that is probably the most mathematical.”

I asked Styer where this notion of faux storefronts had come from. He replied, “Primarily, we were hoping to echo some of the signage styles on parade in the area. The gallery was interested in a show to do with how their neighborhood is changing. I advocated—among the New Bohemia Signs artists—for imagining storefronts for businesses that we as sign painters, if not as residents, would like to see moving in.”

Damon Styer painted the exhibit title sign, based on a liquor store sign in Echo Park.

Styer added, “My own focus started drifting away from actual or imaginary enterprises, toward writing whatever I felt moved to write, keeping local styles—and eventually street signs—in mind.”

The inspirational liquor store sign on Echo Park Avenue

Caitlyn Galloway’s aspirational liquor store; (right) Damon Styer’s pillar of wisdom about sign painting

Heather Hardison created signage for a produce shop, La Buena Tierra.

This sign is one of Hardison’s favorites.

We asked Felt & Wire friend Julie Salestrom if she’d like to check out the opening for us. (She has designed signage for projects across the country, as well as in a few others.) She excels at taking a quick pic out the window while she’s driving. She told us, “L.A. is a treasure trove of handpainted signs. I’ve learned not to pass one by if I want a photograph of it. The next week, it may be gone, replaced by something else, or simply painted over. I’m shocked that people think they are expendable. Occasionally, a sign that’s been there for years gets an ‘update,’ because the shop now carries sheet metal in addition to steel pipe. The lettering, colors and imagery are wonderful. A good sign reflects the cultural identity of its neighborhood.”

Caitlyn Galloway’s installed demonstration letters

Caitlyn Galloway’s ice cream truck

Salestrom loved the show and rose to the challenge of trying to photograph the storefronts in the ebb and flow. She had her brand-new copy of Sign Painters signed by three sign painters: Damon Styer, Caitlyn Galloway and Ken Davis.

Ken Davis in front of his tattoo parlor

Mysterious: Aaron Cruse’s private eye is glass gild with matte centers.

Damon Styer paints what he means and means what he paints.

Erica Overskei, the gallery manager at Subliminal Projects, talked a bit about some of the enthusiasts who came to see the show, which was up for a month. “A number of people came in who used to live in San Francisco and are now in L.A. Of course they had a positive reaction—I think for the main reason that the aesthetic is reminiscent of shops in S.F. Sign painting is so prevalent there as opposed to vinyl. Many people have commented on how they hope sign painters will receive the recognition they deserve as true artists and that the genre of sign painting will have the resurgence it deserves.”

Candice Kobayashi’s homage to good times

Heather Hardison based her sign (which measures 7 x 3 ft.) on the shape of an actual sign in the neighborhood for Tom’s Burgers.

She added, “I personally had a great time with this show. The New Bohemia Sign painters were so friendly and easy to work with. They are a true collective who care for and support each other. They are very dedicated to their practice. I think a show like this needed to happen in L.A., and I’m pleased we were the first to do it. The Echo Park/Silver Lake area is full of independent boutiques, coffee shops, venues and other small businesses—enterprises where sign painting is most popular—so having the exhibition here was very fitting.”

Aaron Cruse’s take on “out to lunch”—we’ll take one!

 Photos: Sara Haile: 6, 12, 14, 17, 19; New Bohemia Signs: 4, 5, 7, 10, 11, 16, 18, 20; Julie Salestrom: 2, 3, 8, 9, 13, 15, 21. Top photo: Alyson Kuhn.

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Comments (1)

  1. Posted by Colt Bowden on 01.17.13 at 7:27 pm

    These guys are superb! Long live hand painted Signs!

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