Though now a well-regarded name in the world of sign-painting and graphic design, Sean Starr began his sign-making career by helping out at his dad’s sign shop (Starr Custom Paint) in San Antonio, Texas. Among other things, they painted Willie Nelson’s tour bus, and Sean picked up his dad’s determination and work ethic. Later, Sean plotted vinyl at a Seattle sign shop. The work was less than fulfilling, so he kept up his painting skills at home. After moving to San Francisco, Starr Studios was born:
Starr Studios got started in San Francisco in 2005 in my brother’s garage in the Mission District. I had just moved from Tacoma, Washington to San Francisco and was looking to make a fresh start of things and stayed in the garage apartment of my brother’s house and built a tiny studio there. I hadn’t painted signs for a few years at that point and the first paying job I got was for an organic grocery store in Haight-Ashbury (Fresh Organics on Stanyan Street) . All we had at the time was our motorcycle, so I strapped my paint box and kit to the back of the bike and headed to the Haight to take care of the job when it started pouring rain. Showed up completely soaked but painted new lettering in their window, collected a check and was able to buy a couple more cans of OneShot.
We’re now in Denton, Texas, but we actually moved first to the Los Angeles area, in the mountains outside L.A. for two years to be near Kayleigh’s family in a little town called Big Bear. That allowed us to work on a lot of projects in Beverly Hills, including a job for Lindsey Buckingham (from Fleetwood Mac) and some other notable folks, but southern California just wasn’t for us. We came to visit some of my family who lives in Denton, fell in love with the place and started making plans to move. We got here at the beginning of 2012 and absolutely love living here. It’s like San Francisco with a Texas accent: lots of art, music and organic food so we feel right at home. I grew up in South Texas so it was kind of a homecoming for me, and Kayleigh just fell in love with it here too.
Is Denton very different to San Francisco in regards to the type/style of sign work people are after?
Yes and no. We work all over what they call the Metroplex, which is Dallas, Fort Worth and all of the surrounding towns (something like six million people live in this area) so its a pretty good mix of work. People here really love our vintage style of design and some of the more rustic looking work we developed in San Francisco.
I guess we have our style and people like it, so we just get up every morning and do our thing. We stayed busy in California, but here we have been almost too busy. Most of the year we have a waiting list that can be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months depending on what’s on our plate. That’s a good thing as well as bad. Kayleigh and I like to live life simply and don’t have aspirations of building the studio any larger than it is, so it can be a struggle to maintain a pace that doesn’t become unmanageable.
You started out with painting signs, but you’re doing a lot of graphic design as well. I noticed you even have a separate website for that. Can you tell us more about the two disciplines? Is it first a sign & then a logo, or the other way around?
This has been a back and forth thing for me. I have always done what is now labeled as “branding” but my first love has and always will be painting signs. I have merged the two websites into just one and don’t openly pursue the branding work on the website. We have a handful of repeat clients who come to us for that and that’s great to work on those projects too, but first and foremost we design and hand paint signs and I work hard to not let that become secondary in how we are identified.
We have worked with a lot of big name clients and I have mixed feelings about it, to be honest. I am grateful for the projects we have been fortunate to work on, but these large companies are sometimes a pain in the neck to deal with, have insane deadlines and may have practices and ethics we don’t agree with.
Early on I had the mindset to take the money (and the headaches) from those large companies and use it to build the studio the way we wanted, and that’s what we have done, with no regrets. We still get calls from some huge entities and if I am not liking where the conversation is going I walk away and make no apologies for it. Last year a huge retailer wanted me to fly to nine different cities and paint lettering in their top producing retail stores. Once I got down to the details it would have meant being away from home for three months and basically kicking my local clients to the curb for that period of time. They offered me an enormous amount of money (what I would normally make in almost a full year) and when I said no they called back and offered even more. They were really tripped out that I wouldn’t do it, at any price. But that’s big corporations, that’s how they treat everything: throw enough money at someone and you can get them to do anything you want. It’s shameful. I was contacted by one of the higher-ups at the company after I stood my ground who told me that she really respected my integrity, which was a nice gesture, but in the end you have to decide whether its about living a decent life centered around family, friends, your community and the craft itself or if its about the almighty dollar.
– You’re the editor of Traditional Sign Maker Magazine. Fill us in about that publication.
That’s been a passion project from day one. James Thomas who runs Bluejacket Sign Company in Los Angeles jumped in to help with that last year and has been doing a great job. It’s basically just a way to put the spotlight on some people working the craft who really have it down and have something to share. We have plans to expand it more in the near future and James is working on a new podcast that will be announced soon.
I get asked periodically to lecture at some of the local Universities and enjoy doing it more than I thought I would. The enthusiasm from design students, as well as staff at the Universities has been really exciting. I have been invited to do some lectures out of state as well, which I will eventually do when it makes sense to do so. We have been asked repeatedly if we would be willing to do an in-studio workshop which we are considering doing this coming Fall. We have never done that either, but the interest has been really huge, so we will see if we can’t put something together for that as well.
I only want to lecture on sign painting, and that so far is all I have done. I have done this kind of work for over 25 years, it’s what I am passionate about and what I know (kind of). Even with that being said, I am learning new things daily and will continue to do so. There are no “expert” sign painters, never have been. We are all just trying to refine what we know, to improve, and then wham! you see someone like John Lennig or Chris Dobell doing some freehand script and you realize you don’t know squat. But, that’s what makes it awesome.
Being included in The Sign Painter Movie was such an awesome experience for us. Not only was it a real honor to be included in the film, but we got to provide some of the archival photos that are seen through the film as well. We put together a Letterhead Meet for when they flew out to our studio in California which included one of my mentors, John Arnott who owns Signgraphics in San Diego as well as Derek McDonald who owns Golden West Sign Arts in Berkeley, California. The biggest treat was having our buddy John Lennig there, who also appears in the film. John has been painting signs for over 50 years and operates Big Top Sign Arts in Vancouver, British Columbia. We first got to know John when he came to San Francisco and taught Kayleigh and I some gold leafing tricks. He is the epitome of an old pro, who makes everything look easy and effortless. He is a daily inspiration and several of his pieces hang in our studio (mostly a reminder of how good I will never be, no matter how hard I try!). We got to see it on the big screen at the Texas Theatre in Dallas this summer, kind of surreal, but totally awesome.
Thanks a lot, Sean, for taking the telling us about your life and work. Keep painting!
And here’s a little more of Sean’s work:
Finally, here’s a little documentary called ‘Keepers of the Craft’ featuring the studio: