Vigeant Sign Making

Looking for Trouble: Believe in the Magic of Sign Making

Steven Vigeant owns Berkeley Signs, a commercial sign company serving the San Francisco Bay Area since 1985. Visit his Web site at BerkeleySigns.com or contact him at Steve@BerkeleySigns.com.

When I gained the opportunity to repaint the classic sign for Shattuck Spats, it had been gracefully aging in the heart of Berkeley for more than 30 years. The establishment itself was a quirky “only in Berzerkley” fern bar-type place that had gone out of business a few years earlier, but the sign was still there and had seen many better days. Around the time the sign was originally painted in the mid-‘80s, I was restoring old signs for the most part, so I didn’t consider my personal painting style to be “artistic” at all, because … I didn’t have any style. For years I simply repainted other painter’s old chipping and fading work, and that was about it. So when I first saw this amazing sign in Berkeley not long after it must have been newly painted, I was struck by how gorgeous it was. I just couldn’t imagine how anyone could create such a beautiful sign.

Around the time when the sign still looked like new, in 1986, I worked for a renegade window splash and trade show display crew called Art Force Graphics. The Force was piloted by the charismatic Randello Smith of Sacramento, who was both talented and completely fearless about trying new techniques. Randy specialized in quick layouts with small rollers and foam brushes. He also developed a clever system for sponge stamp and with this system he and his crew annually blazed an incredible trail of holly leaves and Santa scenes across the greater Bay Area. In the days before online advertising and cheap color printing, the Bay Area’s car lots and chain stores counted on extremely loud florescent window promotions to stimulate sales. Clients would spend big bucks on wild “day-glow” window displays that could be seen half a mile away. And every sale had to be a “BLOW OUT! MEGA AWESOME SUPER SALE!!! with exploding bricks and whatnot. There was a year-round call for bombastic images that had peppy hand-painted lettering and illustrations. Christmas was a peak season for this type work and the Art Force would take on extra help such as myself to cope with the scores of regular accounts that all had to happen at once on 18-hour shifts before Black Friday.

A key member of the Art Force team at the time was Renaldo Ratto, who specialized in artistic illustrations for every season. I thought he was at his best around Christmas when he could lay out a hundred square foot Santa’s workshop scene, complete with dozens of elves and huge piles of toys, in about half an hour. When people on the street asked, “Did you do that free-hand?” What they really mean is: “Do you work like Renaldo does—straight out of your mind?”

“No, to be honest, I’m a faker because I have to use projectors, pounce patterns and computers.”  

I would like them to continue to be in awe but they are usually disappointed, because next I need to ask them what they specifically mean by “free-hand.”  Eventually, I would lose all their respect when I point out that, “If you look closely you can see pounced outlines up there.” How unartistic of me! Watching Renaldo work really blew my mind because he just oozed artistic free-form talent, when personally, for my entire life I have always required some sort of rigid model or reproducing system to use as a guide. So when I eventually discovered that he not only painted, but personally designed the Spats sign on a napkin or whatever, it is easy to understand how I was in awe of him and would have to place him on a very high pedestal, indeed.

Flash forward to 2015 -- when the long dormant Shattuck Spats restaurant and cocktail lounge is surprisingly going to be resurrected -- and the new owner wants me to restore the sign, “So it will be exactly how it was.”

I was in shock. The time had come for me to accept that I could do it, and get over my many years of insecurity about not being a real “artistic” sign painter. I needed to catch my breath and wipe away a tear, and laugh at the great irony that had fallen into my lap. After all this time, since Randy died and Renaldo gave up sign painting for metal work, I would now have to channel their loose style with my usual literal approach. It seems that the key is to take every detail very seriously, while simultaneously realizing that it is after all, only a sign. And to be fair it is actually the casual flow of the artist's own personality that matters, and you can’t take it too seriously. I finally had no choice but to accept that maybe I can paint signs with a little magic in them just as they did.