On a recent evening, I was sitting on a bench outside the St. Francis diner in the Mission when a stranger came up to me, smiling. He had an unconventional look about him –pristine white Dickies overalls with gold fasteners, a white collared shirt underneath with the top of a red tie visible at his neck, and a matching red 49ers cap. As he ambled in my direction, grinning, I eventually realized he wasn’t looking at me at all, but at the window behind me. I spun around to see what he was so captivated by, but found myself just staring at a reflection in the glass. As it turned out, this stranger was John Seastrunk, a prolific sign painter who was envisioning his next work.
Catching me looking at the window, he started explaining: “I’m going to be painting Cinco de Mayo here. But I’ll start on the other side, so you can sit there for a while.” It dawned on me that I had been looking at this man’s painted windows up and down 24th Street for the past three years, at places like Boogaloos, the Napper Tandy, and a handful of taquerias. In addition to store names and sales announcements, John paints holiday decorations: Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, Día de los Muertos, Fourth of July, you name it, he does it. He can point to clients everywhere in the city from North Beach to the Sunset and to lettering in Bayview he painted 25 years ago.
John grew up in Bayview, and though he’s lived elsewhere, he stays there now. After seeing him at St. Francis, we meet up a few days later at the intersection of 3rd Street and Palou, in his neighborhood. When I spot him, he’s halfway through a Mother’s Day sale sign on the windows of a dollar store. His briefcase of paints is propped open on a stool. We find a sunny spot to sit across from a nail studio and a cash-checking store John had long since lettered, and I quickly learn that hanging out at a street corner with John in Bayview is like appearing with a celebrity. I feel a little out of the loop. Everyone knows him, and people who don’t know him, know his work. During our conversation, I begin to scratch the surface of a San Francisco institution.
John’s first big break as an artist came in Ms. Anderson’s third grade class at Bret Harte Elementary in Bayview. He drew a jungle scene that was so realistic for a kid his age, he won an award and the de Young Museum displayed the drawing. Then as a student at City College, John started the kind of lettering he does now, earning his first 60 bucks at a mom-and-pop liquor store on Fillmore. After graduation, he painted his way through tuition fees in six months. Always painting on the side, John’s worked in construction, as a chiropractor, a singer, and at most length, a plumber.
“It’s taken me 30 years to get a steady hand,” John says on that corner in Bayview, pulling a sponge brush from his pocket and holding it up just so. Not only does it take a still hand, but also an understanding of how light shines through each color and affects readability; which colors and font best articulate each message; and what preconceptions each audience will bring to the experience of reading the sign. “The world revolves around color,” he says. “If you’re going to find a burrito place, and you see red, white, and green, you know it’s Mexican, and you know what you’re going to find inside.” John gets to know his clients a little before starting each job. He’s got 120 typefaces memorized that he draws from, not counting Chinese, Arabic, and Khmer alphabets.
When I ask what kind of competition there is in the hand-painted lettering scene in San Francisco, he stops and thinks for a moment, and offers, “Not much.” There are sign companies, but they have set prices and won’t do any haggling, and they don’t do handcrafted signs like John does. There’s also another painter in the Mission, but apparently he has a different style. John says there aren’t a ton of people who do lettering by hand any more since vinyl stickers became the norm a couple decades ago. “It’s a dying art,” he says.
While John’s telling me all this, several people pass by and say hello to him. A guy from the cellphone store right behind us interrupts to ask him to come talk about painting a sign when he has a moment. “Wow, I’m making money just sitting here with you!” John says to me, laughing. Then a woman waiting for the Muni, sitting to our right, starts telling me what an amazing painter he is. “Have you met her before?” I ask John, who just shakes his head and smiles.
What might be John’s most eccentric side comes out when I ask about his attire. To put it simply, he’s got style. It’s not every day you see someone with work overalls and a tie on. His white denim Dickies are in excellent condition and have not a single drop of paint on them, except the chest pocket, which is filled from edge to edge with finger smears. Fire engine red, pastel blue, Day-Glo yellow, sparkly gold. “It’s like a map,” John says, gesturing to the pocket. “The orange and gold I remember I put on there a week ago when I was painting a deli. Over here, this green was from painting a supermarket a month ago. It shows me where I was and what I was doing.”
John has 12 pairs of these overalls – all with color maps on the chest pockets – folded away for safekeeping. He’s hoping to get a patent some day and sell versions of these under the name “Work Johns.” His appearance functions as self-advertising; potential clients know his trade just by looking at him. His style is also about showing pride and love for his work. “There’s nothing else better than what I’m doing here. There’s no drama; I’m peaceful when I’m doing it. Sometimes I just sing.” And as if being a paint wiz isn’t enough, John can really sing. He and his four siblings have been performing R&B and gospel together since they were kids. They recently performed a 40-year anniversary show at the Bayview blues hub, Velma’s.
Next time I’m cruising down 24th Street, or anywhere else in the city, I’ll keep an eye out for hand-painted lettering, now that John’s brought it into focus for me. He’s retired from plumbing and mostly just paints and sings these days. He recently slipped off a ladder and fractured a bone in his wrist, which makes it difficult to lift a gallon of milk. Yet the injury doesn’t affect his painting one bit, since his brushes are so light. His longtime customers will be expecting touch-ups on their signs after a couple of years’ weathering, plus new holiday sale announcements. There’s no chance he’ll leave them hanging any time soon.
Check out some of John’s handiwork at the Stinking Rose, Gino and Carlo, North Beach Pizza, the Mona Lisa, St. Francis Fountain and Diner, and Boogaloos.