Stroke of Genius
My head and hand are clogged in their connection. I’m not sure where the kink in the chain occurs, but when my noggin sends what I imagine to be a very straightforward signal to my hand, I never fail to be disappointed by what my hand produces. I might want it to draw an elegant uppercase letter S and moments later I watch my hand scrawl out a jagged imbalanced shape that, while recognizable as an S, has absolutely no conection to what I had imagined.
Perhaps it’s because of my self-consciousness about my lack
of head/hand coordination that a few years ago, when I came upon a team of painters from New Bohemia Signs hard at work at the window of The Painted Lady Tattoo, I became instantly enchanted. They stood effortlessly brushing out supremely intricate letters with a skill I couldn’t fathom possessing. My crush on New Bohemia began that morning and blossomed into a full-blown love affair by the time the sign was finished later that day.
Years later, I go down the list of signs in New Bohemia’s portfolio and realize that their
work has in many ways established a particular aesthetic of our neighborhoods. Miette’s calm and clean design sums up the feeling I get when I sit in Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley. The neat grittiness that you see in Serpentine’s aesthetic exemplifies the Dogpatch’s straightforward start-up attitude. And BellJar’s edgy elegance screams of the Mission’s feminine side. Wanting to know more about how this small team of craftsmen has come to define San Francisco through their signs, I visit New Bohemia’s shop.
As I walk into New Bohemia on the somewhat dodgy corner of 9th and Harrison, I am immediately struck by what an incredibly small space the team of painters work in. While I know that the majority of projects are created on-site, I can’t imagine how the Stinking Rose’s epic signage ever fit in this space. Scott, the shop’s manager, sees my astonishment and comments, “You think this is small, it’s three times larger than the shop we moved from three months ago.”
Scott is my tour guide for the day and after we find a spot among the paints and easels he tells me how New Bohemia got its start. Somewhat preposterous and yet perfectly fitting as a piece of San Francisco lore, New Bohemia’s story reads like a chapter out of Tales of the City. In the early ’90s the original owner Steve Karbo (supposedly the first man to sell bell-bottoms in the Haight) was inspired to bring the craft of sign painting to the Mission District. He started his small business in the beer cooler of a bar named Jack’s (now known as Elixir) on 16th and Guerrero. He traded the space in the bar for unlimited signage for the bar. The name New Bohemia was a nod to the resurgence that the Mission was experiencing at that time.
When the bar changed hands, Steve moved the shop to a 350-square foot space on 11th and Harrison. He eventually relocated to New Orleans, and instated manager Maurice O'Carroll to keep the shop open in SF. One day, a man named Damon Styer, who was undergoing a rather major life change, strolled past New Bohemia and popped in hoping for an unpaid internship. To his great surprise, Maurice offered him $7 an hour to apprentice on the condition that he come to the shop and practice painting letters for half an hour each day on his own time. Day after day, Damon diligently practiced the most basic of sign alphabets. Maurice would correct his work and then have Damon assist him on rolling out sign backgrounds and performing other shop duties. Maurice ended up leaving the shop, but before he left he recommended to Steve that Damon replace him.
The astonishing part of the arrangement was that Steve agreed to have Damon manage the shop while continuing his apprenticeship on a long-distance basis. They started a routine wherein Damon mailed Steve photos of his drawings and paintings and then waited for comments and corrections to be faxed or mailed back to him. I chuckle hearing this, realizing that as little as 10 years ago this was an efficient arrangement, whereas today it sounds nothing other than archaic. After six months, the two realized that Damon had earned his stripes and found his own place in the world of sign painting. Soon after, he bought the business from Steve and has owned it ever since.
What stands out most to me about this story is the fact that craft has always been the deciding factor in New Bohemia’s evolution. As I sit in the shop I look around to see nearly all the painters (including Damon) standing at the long easels practicing all kinds of lettering strokes. As I watch their seemingly perfect execution, Scott reminds me that sign alphabets were developed based on shapes that the human hand can execute in a clean and efficient manner. Sign shops rely especially on painters who have the alphabets embedded into their bodies’ muscle memory, and repetition is the only way to achieve this skill.
New Bohemia holds true to this tradition and still takes on apprentices to learn the trade. These interns practice casual fonts, pattern making, and in general, teach their bodies (more than their minds) to execute the work. I ask how long one must plug away at these letters before being ready to tackle a San Francisco storefront, and find out that it generally takes a year before perfecting the skill to work in the field. No matter how steady your hand or how good your eye, sign painting is a craft of commitment.
With such attention paid to providing the highest caliber of work, I am surprised to find that New Bohemia continues to keep its prices low so that almost any business in SF can afford a hand-painted sign. To this day, the shop charges roughly $75 an hour for basic designs, meaning that a store could hang a simple yet beautiful sign on its door for less than $300. I respect the fact that one of the shop’s goals is to make hand-painted signs accessible. “I mean how cool would it be if you walked around San Francisco and every shop had a hand-painted sign out front. I don’t think we can even imagine what that would look like anymore,” Scott tells me.
Additionally, the shop is gearing up to teach sign-painting classes to encourage more people to get involved in the trade. I (naively) ask if they fear creating competition, and by the smile on Scott’s face I know I have the answer to my question. The rates alone should signify that New Bohemia is not driven by capitalist motivations. They love what they do and focus on creating the best work they can while making the craft accessible to all in hopes of seeing the art on storefronts across the city. Last year was their busiest to date, and while they get inquiries from all around the world, their priority remains making sure that San Francisco’s storefronts are as unique as the contents they house.
With all this talk of practice and muscle memory there is a brief moment where I wonder whether my problem is simply one of stubbornness and lack of perservervence. I explain my dilemma to Scott and he agrees: “You stand at an easle drawing letters every day for a year and I guarantee you’ll be able to paint a sign.” He pauses. “I won’t promise that it’ll look good, but the letters, those I bet even you can learn.”
I encourage everyone to take a look at the shop’s portfolio (www.newbohemiasigns.com) and then go to see the work for yourself. On a low-key Saturday I created my own walking tour. I saw Stable, Gravel & Gold, Spork, Hazel & Gertie's, and Idle Hand Tattoo just to name a few. No one look connects these awesome pieces, however. As Damon wrote
in his most recent artist statement: “...It all passes through a needle’s eye, that of aesthetic judgment, of steady hand-eye coordination, and practice, practice, practice...”
Also, if you are in need of a sign, big or small, give New Bohemia a call and let them do their thing. You won’t be disappointed.