Go East, Young Man: Sign Painter Josh Luke brings his talents to Boston

Boston is primed to be the next hub of the sign painting revival—it just doesn’t know it yet. Walking around the Victorian brownstones, it’s easy to imagine that few decades ago the city streets must have been flush with painted signs. Master artisans, along with fresh face graduates from the sign painting course at the Wagner School of Art, would be slapping down paint all over town. Boston is even known for its own style of gilding.

With such a rich past in the trade, it’s surprising to find the city now practically devoid of any proof of its role in sign painting history. There are only a handful of signs left by painters who have been long since retired. Boston’s last bastion in the craft, the Wagner School of Art, now under the name Butera, is closing it’s eighty year-old sign program next fall. This leaves the city in desperate need of someone to rekindle the memories of its tradition in hand painted signs. In Boston’s case, that someone is San Franciscan sign painter Josh Luke

The string of events that lead Luke to the Northeastern hamlet go all the way back to his years in high school. Captivated by graffiti, he would spend his days drawing letters and then, after school, try to paint them on walls. At the time, he didn’t see this as something he could do as a career; it was just for fun. After pursuing a degree in art at UC Santa Cruz, Luke moved to San Francisco. Initially he looked for jobs as a tattoo apprentice, so he could incorporate doing something artistic into his daily work. But before his talents could be snatched up by a tattoo parlor, a better opportunity presented itself. A friend of Luke’s, Tauba Auerbach, happened to be looking for a replacement for her sign painting job with New Bohemia Signs. Intrigued by the position, Luke ended up taking the gig.

Auerbach planned to train Luke before she moved to New York, but she was only able to give him a brief introduction to the craft before she had to leave. This left New Bohemia Signs with only two employees: Luke and the owner Damon Styer. From the beginning, Luke was in awe of Styer’s skill with a brush. Styer had a knack for making even the most perilous sign job seem easy. “I watched him perfectly letter a sign while balancing on a scaffold four stories up. He had to lean out over the street to do it.” Luke explained as he demonstrated how Styer precariously perched on one foot. Determined to make a good impression on his new boss, Luke threw himself into his first assignment; painting a paragraph of teeny tiny lettering on a sign for a law office. Faced with a task difficult for even an accomplished sign painter, Luke muddled through it with his limited skills as best he could. “I literally broke down afterwards because I really wanted to impress Damon. The experience was a good kick in the ass. I realized there was a lot I needed to learn. That’s when I got serious [about sign painting].”

Luke started with New Bohemia in 2005 and saw the operation grow over the five years he was there. The experience came full circle when Luke took on his own apprentice, Ken Davis. One of the great things to come from his mentoring experience was that Luke found he really enjoyed teaching. To open up avenues to teach, Luke decided to go back to school for his Masters degree at the Art Institute of Boston. He packed up to move East along with his girlfriend Meredith, who was also accepted to a master’s program in the city. 

No longer under New Bohemia’s wing, Luke chose to start up his own company. In looking for a name to call his new venture, he wanted to honor his New Bohemia heritage by calling his company Best Dressed Signs. The namesake comes from when Luke, Styer, and sign painter Jeff Canham would occasionally go out to jobs dressed in suits and fedoras. This entertaining painting spectacle may soon be a staple in Boston, as Luke is hoping to revive the tradition on the East Coast.

Since tattooing and sign painting are kindred spirits—early sign painters would also pick up tattoo work when the weather was bad—Luke chose to contact several tattoo studios to see if they needed sign work. Chameleon Tattoo in Harvard Square was the first to jump at the chance. For Chameleon, Luke made two elaborately painted carnivalesque signs and a beautifully gilded window sign. The store owner was so overjoyed about the outcome that he took their old foam core sign and publicly demolished it into bits.

One of Luke’s next gigs was to paint a sign for Orchard Skate shop. The shop was in clear need of a sign, seeing as when Luke approached them about work they were still sporting a not so recent Grand Opening banner. Appreciative of their new sign, Orchard offered Luke a chance to exhibit his work in their gallery space. Luke saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate to a broader audience that sign painting is still viable and relevant. “When I look at signs, I see more than just something you pass by on the street. I see the artistry in them. This show lets people take the time to really look.” In addition to his own work, he wanted to showcase a range of skill levels and styles from established craftsmen to the newer generation of sign painters. 

He didn’t need to search far to find talented individuals with work to display. Luke had recently started the sign painting society called the Pre-Vinylites. He set up the group as a way to bring together the sign painting community, but also to encourage less experienced painters and others who might be interested in lettering, especially young kids who are into graffiti.

The show was a success. When it opened there was already people lining up around the block to get in. Visitors got to expand their ideas of what a sign is. Most signs were traditional paint on wood, but a few pieces used more unique substrates, such as, vinyl records and antique saws. Luke even brought the exhibition far beyond the commercial realm and demonstrated sign painting as fine art with his piece “Look into the Eye”. It’s reminiscent of 17th century Dutch still-life paintings that make the viewer contemplate the future of his own mortality and the emptiness of material things. Luke deftly tackles this feat with the clever use of images on layers of glass and mirrors. 

Much like his mentor Styer, Luke makes the profession look simple, but even he concedes that it’s not easy and he is still learning. “Sign painting is constantly recovering from a string of frustrating moments. I don’t want to romanticize it. It’s brutal, hard work and you are out there constantly fighting the elements. I see it like an extreme form of painting.” Clearly the challenge of the craft doesn’t stifle Mr. Luke. He seems to feed off of adversities. It will be exciting to see where the challenge will push his work in the future.

PHOTOS BY: Josh Luke

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