Life in the Sign Business

It was the fall of '83 when I walked into a sign shop looking for a job. I was eighteen years old, and had been working a minimum wage job at a plant nursery. I didn't know anything about the sign business at the time. The shop was on my way home from work. I asked if they were looking to hire an artist, to which the reply was no, but they decided to hire me as a helper for $5 an hour. I was thrilled. It was the highest I had ever been paid.

There were three owners, Karen and Janet, who were lesbians, but not lovers, and John, whose jealous wife quit her job to work as the office help for the shop, so she could keep an eye on her husband. She soon realized her husband had been telling her the truth about Karen and Janet, but she stayed on, I think because she was the financial brains of the business. Janet was the sales person. Karen was the artist. John was the silk screener. I worked as Karen's helper, painting wall graphics for local school gymnasiums, cafeterias, and hallways. When work was slow, I helped John with layouts and cutting film for the silk screens.

This was a fun time in my life. I was learning new things, and doing something different every day. Plus, usually around quitting time every day, the bosses bought everybody beer. We were located next door to a bar called The Loose Goose, and after work, we'd go play pool. To an eighteen year old, this was an ideal job.

The shop had a sign painter in her mid thirties, by the name of Sandy, who was one of the few female sign painters around. She told me how the sign business was a male dominated business, but, as John complained, "you wouldn't know it by hangin' round here." I was awed by Sandy's ability to freehand paint letters. As if writing with a pen, the paint flowed off her brush in all the exact places. I had tried to paint a sign before, and knew how hard it was. One day I told her so, and she started to teach me how to do it. This was the beginning of a fifteen year career and friendship.

It wasn't long after I was hired, that Karen and Janet went their separate ways, and John took over the business. A little while later, Sandy moved on also, but we remained friends. John decided that he didn't want to deal with hand painted signs, and arranged with me to send all his customers to me when they wanted hand painted work. At the age of nineteen, I started my own sign company called Sign Illusions.

In the early 80's, Houston was booming. There was no shortage of sign work. A 4x8 would sell at it's cheapest for $200. People were willing to pay for the extras that would make their sign stand out. I naively thought that was how it had always been and would be.

Through Sandy, I had met several of the self proclaimed "old timers" of the sign business. Sandy was taught by a man named Larry, who taught her to paint the "old timers way" with a mahl stick, and that is how she taught me. Larry was her ex-boyfriend, and was known nationally for his gold lief work. He had been featured in the magazine, Signs of the Times, a couple of times. He was a hippy who had never out grown his drug induced partying days, and he was not alone. Many of the sign painters I had met were chemical dependent. They would joke about that fact, saying, "we're either a bunch of drunks or born again Jesus freaks." I always blamed it on the paint fumes.

Sandy was neither. I always saw her as a self reliant and independent woman. Then she met Jerry. At the time, I thought she had changed when she met Jerry, but I can see now that I was just beginning to see another side of her. Jerry was a typical sign painter. He was a drunk. He was, though, the meanest drunk I had ever met. He served in Vietnam as a munitions expert. I don't think he ever quite adjusted to civilian life. In the 70's, he did time in prison for the black market construction and trade of bombs. He was out on parole and owned his own sign company when she met him. His shop was in his house like so many of the sign shops were then. It was an old rickety wood frame house in the Montrose area downtown, complete with a pot of goat's head soup simmering on the kitchen stove. Because he was so unpredictable when he drank, he had no friends. His social life was with the people who worked for him. I did a couple of jobs for him when I first met him, but had very little to do with him after he started beating Sandy. It took me a few years to figure out why she would ever marry him, especially after he threatened to blow up my car and come after me with a shotgun. She would stay with me when he beat her, but she kept going back.

After Sandy finally broke free of Jerry's hold on her, she met Tony. Tony was the most fascinating person I met in the sign business. He was married when he and Sandy met, and left his wife to marry her. Unfortunately, as usually happens in these kind of marriages, there were trust issues. At one point, Sandy even thought he was having an affair with me. After she realized it wasn't true, I got to know Tony a little better. Tony, whose real name was Vladimir, was Ukrainian. He served in the Russian navy back in the late 60's early 70's [cold war era]. One day while on a ship in the middle of the Persian Gulf, he struck a superior officer. This was an offense that he said could put him in front of a firing squad, so he jumped ship. He didn't talk about it much. In fact, I had to pry it out of him. I was astounded. Where did he think he was going to go, while he was swimming out there in the middle of a Gulf? He just laughed and shrugged his shoulders. He got lucky. An American ship found him and picked him up. Once on board, he uttered the only words in English that he knew at that time, "I defect".

I cannot begin to image how dramatic that life changing event must have been for him. In an instant, he made a decision that meant he would never see any of his friends or family ever again. He came to a country completely foreign to him. He didn't know any English, and was interrogated like an enemy spy by the U.S. government.

That was all the details he would give me about that event. He said the government finally decided he wasn't a spy, and let him stay, because they knew if they shipped him back, he'd be executed. They never gave him a green card or visa, though. It was 25 years later when he was telling me this, and he was still an illegal alien. I'm not sure why after being married to a U.S. citizen, but he indicated that he thought it had something to do with some of the trouble he got into after he got here.

When I knew him, he was a recovering alcoholic, who had been sober for 11 years. In the 70's, though, it was a different story. A smile would come to his face when he talked about his first taste of freedom in the U.S.. He didn't mind talking about this. He always said that he loved the U.S., it was his home, and he would never go back to the Ukraine even though it was safe for him to return now. He would talk about bell bottoms, long hair, hitch hiking around the country, and run-ins with the law along the way. At the time he was telling me this, his hair had long since been cut, he and Sandy owned their own sign company, and Rush Limbaugh was on the radio in the shop.

His marriage to Sandy didn't last, though. Sandy left him for one of their workers, a drunk who is very controlling. I can only speculate as to why, but it doesn't matter now. Tony went back to drinking after she left. On one binge, he ended out in jail in Louisiana. Immigration was called in. Because he didn't have a green card, they could detain him indefinitely. They finally let him go after a month or two, but he lost the business.

The sign business in general was completely changing by this time. It's mostly done on computer now. The sign painters that survived, diversified. Tony had a real knack at woodworking, and got into sandblasted wooden signs, which kept his business alive. Larry, on the other hand, went down hill. Tony and Sandy took him in at one point when he was homeless, and tried to help him, but he was doing crack. Even if he hadn't had a drug problem, he could not have supported himself anymore with hand lettering or gold lief. In '97, fourteen years after I first started, your were lucky if you could still get $200 for a 4x8. And as for Jerry, well last I heard, his liver was failing him. I picture him rotting away in some V.A. hospital. An even sadder picture I have, though, is of Tony living in a halfway house in Galveston, working as a laborer in a sign shop for minimum wage. Then one day, Sandy found him in his room, dead from alcohol poisoning. It's suspected that his death was intentional, not accidental.

This really hit home for me. Tony's life seemed symbolic of my experience with the sign industry. It started out naive and over indulgent, and ended out tragic. I quit sign painting before Tony's death, and have not been able to paint or draw anything serious since. I think my disgust with the industry has taken the joy out of art. Also, I could really identify with the hopelessness Tony must have felt. At the time of Tony's death, I was struggling to make it on my own, and dealing with my husband's death. I felt like I had wasted my whole life learning a trade that got me nowhere, like the mistakes of my past would haunt me forever, like I was a failure at everything I had ever tried to do. Even though I'm sure that this is how Tony must have felt too, I never saw him that way. I always thought he had so much to offer through his experiences and his talents. So much potential. He obviously couldn't see that about himself, and I couldn't see it about myself either. It scared me. I couldn't bring myself to go to his funeral. It was a funeral that only his 2 ex-wives attended. Oh God, I don't want to end out like that, especially if there is even the slightest chance of potential in me. A chance of potential like that which Tony threw away.

I can see now how easy it is to get sucked into a dying system, and miss opportunities to take new paths. Mistakes don't have to haunt you forever if you don't let them. It's how you see them that makes the difference. Do you see missed opportunities as the product of some incurable defect, or a normal part of life? Old habits are hard to break.

I feel like I need to make myself keep drawing until I can get the joy back. My last drawing, Spring Cleaning, seems like it has no depth, just shallow and flat. I think I know what it needs. Maybe a "surreally" muddy landscape and horizon, and a source for the light, like a sky with every color of the spectrum shining through clouds, or maybe I just need to simplify it. Why can't I make myself do it? It's not like I'm doing this for some faceless customer with no taste, who wants something for nothing. It's for me. I'm never happy with my drawing anymore. I get more satisfaction from my photography and digital collages. It never ceases to amaze me how my camera can make an ugly world look beautiful. It helps me to see beauty in places I haven't seen it before. I can't remember if art ever did that for me. Maybe it helped me see beauty in myself. I don't know. I wish I could remember what it was that made me feel so good, so I could get it back. I think the key is new paths, which is why I'm trying pastels, but the pastels don't seem to be working. I look back over the years and realize that I seem to have gotten lost somewhere along the way.


words: Lori Epperson, Texas (blog & photos)
image: Cathrine Lødøen, Norway (snapshots)


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