Update: Best Dressed Signs
Josh Luke and Meredith Kasabian have been staying pretty busy over at Best Dressed Signs in Boston. It’s been a few years since we last featured them on TSM and we decided now was a good time to check in and see what they have been up to. They are completely submerged in sign painting culture and live and breathe this stuff. It is always exciting to see what new projects they are working on and now we get to hear a little more about what the last few years has entailed.
TSM: A couple years have past since we featured Best Dressed Signs on TSM and a lot has happened since then. Can you recap the last few years and were there any highs or lows?
The last few years have definitely been an exciting time for us. Other than tying the ol’ knot, one of our biggest accomplishments was moving the sign shop out of the living room in our apartment into a bona fide workshop! We’ve also been keeping busy with lots of different kinds of projects including art shows, demos, and PVS proliferation tactics.
TSM: Going back to your days at New Bohemia Signs, what was a typical day like as an apprentice at a sign shop?
When I first started apprenticing at New Bohemia I was learning from Tauba Auerbach. She would set me up with a practice casual alphabet and show me how to form the letters. I don’t remember spending all that much time practicing before I went out on jobs with Tauba and Damon. I don’t know if this is the best example of how you should go about it but I think actually being out on the job put more pressure on me to do well.
One of the earliest signs I painted on my own for New Bohemia was for a lawyer who wanted a paragraph of text with 1” tall serif letters. This endeavor quickly made me realize the limits of my ability and before I got halfway through I ran off to the bathroom (to cry). In the end I got it done and maybe it was the tears blurring my vision but it almost looked halfway decent. As it turned out the lawyer never came by to pick up the sign (in fact I never met this “lawyer”) and the sign remained in the shop for the duration of my time there, basically reminding me that many more days of struggle were yet to come. To this day I’m still not sure if it was Damon Styer Esq. just having a little fun and putting me to the test.
TSM: Do you think it is possible for individuals that want to learn the craft now are able to be self taught and have the correct fundamentals?
In the age we live in you can learn a lot on your own. Your progress may be slower as it will take a greater amount of research, practice, self-critique, and a good amount of trial and error. There are many aspects of my training that I take for granted and I’m lucky to have been shown the method for achieving a particular effect. There are also many things that I have and continue to learn on my own. I feel that my own training is far from complete and I’m constantly aware of my limitations and how much further I have yet to go.
TSM: Where do you see sign painting in the next 5 years? Is it going to be the new tattooing fad where there is a sign shop on every street corner?
Ha! I can’t quite imagine a sign shop on every corner, but I do believe that there will be a lot more people trying to establish themselves as sign painters. Meredith and I sometimes have anxiety about increased competition as more and more people become interested in the trade. It’s tough because I have also positioned myself as open to sharing what knowledge I have with those just starting out, and potentially creating more competition for ourselves. However, I believe that those who take this trade seriously and strive to continuously increase their knowledge and skill will have a portfolio and work ethic that will stand out in the eyes of the client. It may be an optimistic way of looking at it, but I believe that if you concentrate on doing quality work you will be successful no matter how much competition is around you. …..or you could crash and burn, but at least there’s always cheap beer.
TSM: Meredith is obviously a huge part of Best Dressed Signs and with my personal experience, excellent at replying to emails and being very friendly to strangers. How has your teamwork benefited your business?
Meredith and I met in our wild SF days and have since continued to help each other mature and grow into both a happily married couple and business partners. We are extremely lucky to have each other and both possess unique and complementary skills. Meredith graduated with her Masters about two years ago and shortly after began concentrating more on BDS, PVS, and other literary interests. We have figured out a way to showcase our individual talents; Meredith is an excellent communicator and writer while I am more visually minded. It’s not always easy and the business does consume a major portion of our lives together, but at least the difficult aspects of running a business are outweighed by the satisfaction you get from doing something you believe in.
TSM: Meredith. What does an average day entail for you at BDS?
Every day is different but every day involves multitasking on some level. If Josh doesn’t need my help on a sign job, I usually I start off by responding to emails and phone calls, putting together bids, or sending out invoices or receipts for payments. I’ll also update our website, maintain social media, and work on blogs for Best Dressed Signs and the Pre-Vinylite Society. I always have a writing project (or three) that I’m working on, whether it’s for a blog post or an art show or a talk so half my days are spent in the library.
If Josh does need my help on a sign job, I’ll do things that don’t require a great amount of lettering skill like perforating a pattern or double coating letters or surface gilding. I also work on large scale projects and murals where there’s a little more artistic leeway or distance from the ground. But even when I’m out on the job-site I still try to stay on top of emails and phone calls, unless I’m on top of a ladder or scaffolding.
TSM: I am guilty of picking your brain and asking questions from what kind of brush to use, to what clear coat work best. You must get tons of emails asking for apprenticeships and things of that nature right?
We do get a good amount of emails regarding both apprenticeships and technical sign painting questions. Meredith and I make a point of responding to everyone who emails, but we are spread fairly thin and can’t always get back to people in a timely way or with great detail. We try to encourage people to post their questions on the Pre-Vinylite Society Facebook page and hopefully they can get some good advice that way.
We do get requests for apprenticeships but unfortunately we’re just not equipped to take on more than one apprentice at this stage of our business. We encourage interested people to come by our demos to chat with us, and also to check back down the road as there are usually opportunities to work with us, especially if we get contracted for larger jobs and need more help.
TSM: Word on the street is there was a commercial of you two that was supposed to air on the Grammy’s. Did anything ever happen with that?
Yes it’s true. We were a bit bummed that it didn’t air but mostly because we made the mistake of telling our family and friends and unfortunately many of them watched the entire Grammys, which I would not wish on anyone. However, the experience of filming the commercial in Austin, TX was incredible. We got to hang out with my #1 sign painting hero, Mr. Gary Martin and his awesome wife Jeanne, who were very gracious and helped us out immensely while we were in town. We also go to see one of our favorite musicians, Junior Brown, and get completely trashed while attempting the two-step.
TSM: How did you get hooked up with fashion designer Juun J?
We received an email from Juun J’s assistant asking if I would be interested in doing a collaboration with him. He had seen my feature in the Sign Painters book and thought our styles would work well together. It was a great experience and it was fun to see how an artist working in a completely different field would interpret my designs. I think Juun J and I have similar ideas about our craft—we both rely heavily on the traditions of the trade and use classic designs in our work, but we’re also both trying to push the boundaries of our respective crafts and make them more contemporary or even futuristic.
TSM: There seems to be some debating going on with the older generation of sign painters on social media about people claiming to be “Sign Painters” without proper training or apprenticeships. Do you think there is a definite line that marks whether you are a sign painter or not?
That’s a tough question, I still have some anxiety about calling myself a full-fledged sign painter, even though I’ve been painting signs for almost ten years now. Meredith was recently reading me a paragraph from a book called The Craftsman that explained the journey of learning a trade and the time it takes to become a master in your field. According to this book, in medieval times apprentices would learn by imitation for 7 years before they could become a journeyman. As a journeyman, “the craftsman would work for another five to ten years until he could demonstrate […] that he was worthy to take the master’s place.” The journeyman “had to show managerial competence and give evidence of his trustworthiness as a future leader.”
Comparing my own experience to this description, it would be more accurate to call myself a journeyman sign painter. That being said, these days the opportunity of becoming an apprentice under a master sign painter is rare. If you are just starting out it makes sense that you would want to label yourself as a sign painter so you can acquire jobs to gain more experience. But at the same time it is important to be honest about your level of training so that you can consistently push yourself and your abilities to a greater level.
TSM: What about people who are for the most part self-taught. Is there a point in their career when one can say, “ I am a Sign Painter” and receive the respect and admiration of the old timers who were professionally trained?
You definitely need the confidence going into it that you will indeed succeed as a sign painter. With that said, it’s important to stay open to criticism of your work and pay attention to what experienced sign painters have to offer as far as inspiration and knowledge. While we were in Austin, Gary Martin gave me some great inspiration and advice. At one point he said, “I could definitely teach you some things,” which means he’s able to see both the flaws and (hopefully) the potential in my work. I may not be able to recognize my inexperience at this point, but as I progress I will hopefully look back and see the flaws or potential in the signs I’m painting now. There will never be a time when there’s nothing left to learn so I guess my point is to be both patient and vigilant.
TSM: What percentage of the work that you do now is drawn by hand?
Everything that I design begins with a hand drawing. However, that doesn’t mean that the computer doesn’t play a role at some point. I start with a sketch, then I often scan the drawing to correct small inconsistencies or adjust the spacing, etc. Then when I project it, I refine it further with pencil and eraser till it’s ready to be perforated. I’m not all that tech savvy and I think the computer can limit your design potential if you rely on it heavily, but I do think it can be used in moderation to aid in the process.
TSM: How do you approach potential clients about investing in a hand painted sign?
We’re trying to get it out there as much as possible that sign painting is an option in Boston. We’ve been doing a lot of demos lately and we recently put on a Pre-Vinylite Society art show. By educating people on the history of sign painting and demonstrating how it’s done, we show that we’re invested in making our city more beautiful. Once the potential client sees the craftsmanship that goes into painting a sign they learn to appreciate the difference that a hand-made sign can make for their business.
TSM: What is the best way that you have found to get your name out there to get exposure and to get more work?
When we started out in Boston, we went around to tattoo shops with a portfolio of signs I had worked on in San Francisco. We also made business cards and handed those out every chance we got…. So basic street hustling to begin with. One of the best things we’ve done since our street hustling days was to get a decent website that’s easy for Meredith to update. We’ve also been active in having a social media presence and making friends and building networks beyond Boston and SF.
TSM: Sign painting and lettering books are essential for good reference. Do you keep a digital reference on computer or 3 ring binders as well?
I do have one 3 ring binder that Ken Davis gave to me as a gift that contains some great E.C. Matthews lettering and I flip through that pretty often. There is so much cool stuff out there and it’s exciting to find something you’ve never seen or heard about before. Meredith is the history buff and she often comes home from the library with interesting books and articles that relate to sign painting, but not necessarily in a direct sense, so I’m always learning something.
TSM: For those that are just starting their sign business, do you have any sound business advice or practice you would recommend?
I remember a piece of advice that Steve Karbo (the co-founder of New Bohemia Signs) told me once; he said, “Always apply the same amount of care and attention to your smallest clients as you would your biggest clients.”
TSM: Any last comments?
Have fun and enjoy the ride!