The name Ken Davis is not new to this blog, but – being his birthday today – it’s time we devoted a post to this very original sign-painter from Northern California.
What got you into sign-painting?
The short answer I give to strangers is I found something worth dropping out of community college for.
In reality, it’s been something that had been waiting for me all along. I remember very early on noticing signage and typefaces in our town above anything else. I wouldn’t draw a Metallica logo on a backpack I had unless I could guarantee it looked correct. If it wasn’t right I’d never wear the backpack again. That neurosis of precision probably prepped me into hand lettering. I had been drawing letters for a while when a roommate told me to try using a brush and something called OneShot. He clarified that it was a sign-painters enamel. I bought the only two dusty old colors the art store nearby had (dark brown and ivory) and began fooling around. I bought every single book I could find, I’d look up ISBN numbers and track down the rarer ones. Within three years I had a good library, an understanding of old sign making, and little to no skill but a fire to learn and do some kind of justice to the craft. Then I met Josh …
Josh [Josh Luke] and I began hanging out after we met at an art show he was in that my friends at Cyclops Tattoo held. We both skated and Potrero Skate-park in San Francisco had just opened. We would do morning sessions and I would follow him to Newbo and hang out for a tasteful amount of time and go home. After a short while of this he called me up and mentioned that a space might be opening to take on an apprentice. I got an early morning job in a produce department so I wouldn’t have to worry about food and began apprenticing. It was a fast tracked one. A few months into working with Josh, he and Meredith made plans to move to Boston. That year I worked with Josh was invaluable. He broke me of all my horrible habits that I had developed as a feral sign-painter. Once Josh left, I had some large scale shoes to occupy and I did to the best of my ability. As the shop became more renowned and successful I was able to work alongside some other really great people. Eventually I saw my time was closing in there and moved towards going fully on my own.
What’s the connection between skateboarding and sign-painting? A lot of the new sign-painters come from the skating background (for example Josh Luke, Yourself, Colt Bowden, and Will Sears, to name a few)
To me, it seems simply that they’re both environment-based art forms. And they draw similar personalities so naturally there will be overlap. A good sign-painter uses the environment to draw attention to and compliment the sign or wall they are creating. A good skater uses the environment around them to their advantage as well. I skate a lot less now that my hands are the only things supporting me enough to stay away from pushing a shopping cart down skid row.
– You’ve been called a Luddite, and you don’t seem too keen on technology. On the other hand, you have a blog and an Instagram page. Where do you draw the line with computer use?
To use the 20th century term I’m a fence-walker plain and simple. It’s a case by case for me. But bottom line is I have a business and I’m not doing any prospective or current clients any services by hiding from them in this age. I use technology as a tool like an electropounce over a pounce wheel. I’m very cautious with how much I use it. I will rarely use image searches for reference material unless a client brings it up. I have a few professor friends that will fail their students projects if they can search the subject and find exactly where they Googled it. I love that! I’m a book hoarder and a romantic over old world craftsmanship and would never want to live in a world where tangible books aren’t regarded highly.
I blame my Father in the best way possible for my outlook on tech. He was a first generation techie. He worked with HP from almost the beginning of the company but had no interest in it. He saw it as a smart paycheck that would enable him to support a wife and a child as well as all of his creative hobbies. We didn’t have any form of computer in the house until the school gave me grief at 16 for still submitting typewritten papers and handwritten homework. By that time my brain had already developed the grooves to live fine without it. I wouldn’t trade that upbringing for the world. Though I’m technologically feral, I feel more present in my day to day and love the idea of always having my hand in the beginning and end of a project. Like Prince. I like Prince a lot. You will never see me using a program to design a sign I’m working on. That is a guarantee. For me, the act of drawing out the skeleton of the layout, sketching in placeholders for the letters, and finalizing the pattern is a very important process. The checks and balances that occur in the process of that really exercise your critical thinking and I think end up with a stronger product of your toil. I can say that I learn something new each time I make a pattern or a sketch. The extra time it takes is worth it to me. By drawing it out first, you really gather your head on how to approach painting it in my opinion.
Pencil Sketch for a monogram-style logo, by Ken
– Many of your signs are simply pieces of art, rather than functional signs. How much of your work is commissioned, versus self-initiated ‘artwork’?
Though I am flattered when people refer to what I do as “pieces of art”, I have serious conflicts agreeing with that idea. Like I have said in earlier interviews, I am a firm believer of learning the traditions that everyone else before you took the time to execute before you go taking the world by storm; if nothing else out of respect for all those that came before you that did flawless work without any acclaim. Though I do run off on my own take on lettering and design, it comes from a very solid foundation that Josh Luke, Damon Styer, Larry White, and several Letterheads have been kind enough to teach me.
One of Ken’s non-commissioned signs
If I look at my calendar over the next few months and think back over the past 6 years I’d say the amount of commission work I do has jumped from 60 to 90 percent. At this point I have a daunting backlog of personal projects to get to. Commissioned work is priority number one. Anyone that believes in what I do enough to pay me my pound price for it deserves the best that I can do. I am by no means a tourist in this craft and it humbles me that so many people several of whom I really look up to commission me for work. There are very few openings in my month to work on self initiated works now and that’s fine. I’d rather put something out there that has immediate use for someone that appreciates it.
A Commissioned Sign
– Can you tell us how the video ‘It’s Alive!’ came into being?
In a short synopsis, my friend in San Jose runs a gallery called Empire Seven Studios and met with a gold leaf distributor about collaborating to do a promotional video on a craft that not many people are aware exists anymore. He called me and I was on board so long as I didn’t have to go out of pocket for any supplies. And so it began. It was a seriously hearty amount of work. He only had the filmer for two days so that five-foot by eight-foot gold leaf glass sign which normally would take four full days to complete had to be camera ready in the cameraman’s schedule. I think one day was sixteen hours and the other was eighteen, maybe more. I learned a lot from that and got a nice confidence bump that I could gild a sign that large in a serious time crunch. That window took an entire pack of gold to do (twenty books) and a full quarter pint of back-up paint. People still refer to that video which makes me happy since it was a lot of fun to make.
– Your first appearance on our blog was as a disembodied hand, wearing a ‘PVS’ ring. Have you had a lot to do with the Pre-Vinylite Society?
By lineage I do. I remember walking to food on a lunch-break with Josh and having a conversation about how we all need to create a forum to corral all these new and old painters together so we can all share what we do and as a whole further the education and potential of our craft.
Josh and Meredith run the show on that. I contribute on occasion but as outlined above I’m not a sorcerer with computer communication and online sharing. It hinders my ability to be a part of the online enthusiasm but I’m always open and willing to share with another PLU (people like us). All it takes is a call, letter in the mail, or email. And for the record I hide a PVS in every major sign I do.
Detail shot from Ken’s Empire Seven Studios Project.
– Where do you think the sign industry is heading?
I had a good conversation with Meredith yesterday that touched on that. While there’s a lot of enthusiasm for hand-painted work in the design community right now there’s a few glitches in it. Not every design that comes out of a graphic designers portfolio will look as good hand-painted. Though I’m not afraid of money falling in my pocket, as a professional it is important that I give a client exactly what they need. Sometimes that means saying “I can’t do that” “Perhaps a silkscreen” or “That design doesn’t lend itself well to a brush. If I retool it a little it will read better as a hand-painted sign and likely cost less”. We sign-painters need to keep educating clients on what we do as opposed to complaining about a design we have to paint. If we all communicate our capabilities more we will all be creating stronger work.
I also see a small faction of sign artists which I likely fall into as well. Painters that people go to because a client wants their unique take on a custom sign. I can definitely see that growing as a market.