A sign shop doesn’t need to have a big crew to have a big reputation. Brooklyn-based okMitch studio is proof of that. Dmitry Pankov (Known as Mitch) and Angel Saemai make up the entire enterprise. Mitch came from Russia, with a background in street art. Angel ‘was slaving away at a large corporate advertising agency’. Now they create everything from giant, hand-painted wall murals to elegant gilded window lettering to rustic hanging signs. Though neither grew up in New York, their work is quickly becoming part of the urban fabric of the city. Today they share their thoughts:
(Angel) – Mitch moved to NYC in 2006 from Russia, where he went to art school for photography. In Russia he was also creating commercial murals as well as street art. Once in NYC, his first and second jobs were at commercial sign shops, mainly dealing with vinyl and awnings. Not too interested in creating mainstream kinds of signs and also with a desire to work for himself, he eventually started okMitch.
Although Mitch was showing his art in Brooklyn and Miami shows, he was also getting into trouble with the law for his street art. It became a troublesome way to showcase his work and at this time he was also in the middle of transitioning to working for himself. I too always had the desire to be my own boss, so started helping him out.
So, how it really began was with a mural on 4 sides of a trailer at the NYC Water Taxi Beach (no longer exists), a bar and event space along the Hudson River with sand shipped in from Jersey. I heard they were building it and reached out to see if we could paint something. Mitch designed some crazy ideas, including the one he ended up painting – a colorful neon mural of geese (the owner’s idea).
Also, when we first started, it was under another name, Unplate Murals, which lasted just a handful of months. The name came from Mitch’s street art handle, but since that was a collaboration with another artist in Russia, he dropped it and renamed it to okMitch Studio — kind of a quick idea that just stuck.
(Mitch) – Unplate began after doing a lot of graffiti that morphed into other media and showcasing of art on the street. It was a collaboration with my partner, Ben Papyan. We mainly worked with wheat-pastes and stencils of black and white images.
Both of us were also making a living by painting murals for different local businesses in our town [Krasnodar, Russia]
Since sign painting and work on glass is really an American thing, besides the art classes I had in school, I’m more or less self taught with this craft. I read books – like Signwork, by Bill Stewart and Gold Leaf Techniques by Kent Smith – watched YouTube videos, and figured out how other people did it while incorporating my own techniques and experiences. Still, there’s always more to learn.
Initially, I made most of my signs using a stencil, since that’s how I also made some of my street art. These signs end up with the same look and are cleaner & precise. All of our murals are hand painted and within the past couple of years, I have been doing more hand lettering on the glass, because clients want that less than perfect look. I think the final product is the most important part and am not snobby towards using machines or digital techniques, seeing them more as an aid than anything else. However, there is a personal satisfaction to putting hard work and skill into real hand done products. It’s more impressive too.
(Angel) – Our link is up on the The Sign Painters movie site. Through that, a bunch of sign painters from around the country and abroad reached out to us to give us props for our work. We also got the pleasure of meeting a couple of these guys to exchange some tricks of the trade.
ESPO [also known as Steven Powers] is one sign painter and graffiti artist who influenced us from the start. He incorporates his signs with art – something we really appreciate and strive to do. It’s important to us to not to just create signs that are nostalgic or mimic a sign found in the past, so whenever possible it’s our goal to combine contemporary design with this traditional technique.
One of our favorite hanging signs was for Silk Road Cycles. The art was designed by a really talented graphic designer, Jon Contino, who reached out to us to make a cool sign for his logo. It was the first time we really customized a hanging bracket to go with a sign. Sometimes, these kinds of things can turn out cheesy, but ours ended up more subtle, thankfully. We drove around the neighborhood looking for rusty unused sign brackets on the side of buildings instead of aging one ourselves and ended finding one thrown out on the corner, half a block from our house. Then we went to a bike shop and asked them for used parts and lucked out with an old sprocket, which was put on the end of the matching hanging bracket. It spins too!
Gold leaf gilding is always fun because it’s so delicate and about precision. The execution is almost like a form of meditation – a nice break from the large scale painting we do through Overall Murals [the name used for the mural side of the business]. Mural projects are a whole other story – they come with a set of different challenges and rewards.
Here’s some more of their work: