James Thomas: Bluejacket Sign Company
Hi James! Where are you from?
I grew up in Placentia California skateboarding and going to the beach. Now I live in Huntington Beach with my fiancé and our 8 year old daughter.
How did you get into handwritten signs?
My first memories of hand painted signs were probably at the local butcher when I was little called “Gem Meats”. It was a small shop with good meat and a variety of produce items. I remember looking forward to go there to get the free chips and salsa that was kept cool on ice and the potential to talk my parents into buying some of their beef jerky. It was the best. Most of their produce signs were hand lettered. More recently is probably the outdoor shop in Costa Mesa called “Grants for Guns”. They have some signs painted on the outside of their building that I would always drive by. Also the Mexican place called “Supper Pollo”. They have this rad buff chicken wearing a red cape and some lettering that is hand painted as well.
How did you start painting signs?
I went to California State University of Fullerton and graduated with a degree in Graphic Design. I spent a lot of time trying to get design jobs for the local surf companies that are based here in southern California. I did quite a bit of freelance design work while working full time at a local supermarket.
I was first turned to sign painting when I was about to have surgery on my neck for a deteriorating disk when I came across a short film called “Keepers of the Craft” featuring Sean Starr from Starr Studios. That lead me to a massive Google on sign painting and came across Derek McDonald hand painting a few signs for Jack Daniels.
I then found out about New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco. They offered a two day sign painting workshop that I ended up taking. There were about ten of us and we spent the first day lettering a casual and Egyptian alphabet. Then on the second day we painted a sign. That was it! After that trip I started practicing in my apartment. From there on I am pretty much self taught. I reached out to many sign painters who have been very generous in answering all my questions. Specifically Sean Starr, he has helped me every step of the way, taking time to answer my question, doubts and even send work my way, I owe a lot to him and look forward to working alongside him in the future.
When did you sell the very first one?
I believe I sold my first sign to a friend of mine who is a teacher. It said, “Be A Good Person”. It was actually something that one of my fiancés nursing teachers would say to her class. She wanted one and I painted it and posted it on Facebook. The response was surprisingly good and I ended up selling my first sign.
I got to know your work through some tattoo artists, is tattooing art or craft?
I think it’s both. I think being able to draw tattoo designs and using the tools of the trade to apply them to skin permanently and beautifully is an art form. I think the tradition of the tattooer and tattooing as a whole is a craft. By that I mean, doing an apprenticeship, learning to make needles, tracing designs, painting flash, building machines, experimenting, working with other tattooers and giving the client a good experience throughout the process of getting their tattoo is definitely a craft that takes time to learn. I believe sign painters and tattooers are always learning.
Did you ever try tattooing? Who are your favourite tattoo artists?
I worked shortly at Classic Tattoo in Fullerton as a shop helper. I was eager to try to obtain an apprenticeship. At that time I was in school full-time and my family was going through some pretty heavy situations. It just wasn’t my time but I did learn a lot working there. I did tattoo an old Sailor Jerry design on one of those fake skin things. I never did finish it. I think the guys found it and clowned me so I tossed it in the trash can on Harbor Blvd.
My favourite tattoo artists right now are probably Eric Jones, Steve Bryne, Kris Stencel and Chip Douglas. I am lucky to have been able to do some work for all of them except Steve, and have been tattooed by all of them except Chip. The first window I painted was for Kris Stencel at White Lotus tattoo in Laguna Hills. It took me all day. I was so slow and trying to make everything perfect. I ended up painting part of it twice because of a spacing mistake I made. But thats the learning process for you. Kris has been a tremendous supporter in my business and giving me advice and even buying me over $300 worth of 1 shot to help me out! I respect his opinion and value our friendship very much.
Do you consider graphic design an art?
I do. I think the accessibility of the tools like Photoshop and Illustrator is really easy to get. For me it’s easy to tell what is good graphic design and what is bad. But people like Jon Contino, David Carson and Louise Fili make some beautiful art through graphic design. I think a lot of it is over looked in a way but there are tons of talented people making rad art through graphic design.
Which graphic designers/visual artists influence your work the most?
I would say Jon Contino, David Carson, Louis Fili and Alexander Rodchenko are some designers that influence me along with Margaret Kilgallen, Jeff Canham, Dano Forte and many more influence me work daily.
How would you describe your style?
I guess my style tends to be more on the classic side of sign painting. I tend to use classic style layouts and lettering along with a rich colour pallet. Basic block lettering to me is beautiful when done well. If I can, I try to make my signs look timeless. Like they could have been painted 70 years ago. Just like a good traditional tattoo.
What are the projects you are working on?
At the moment I am working on a bunch of menu boards and some window designs and gold leaf for the amazing tattoo artist Tim Hendricks.
Is there anything that you would like to paint but didn’t have the chance yet?
As far as a surface or substrate, I would like to paint a classic sign on a brick wall. I have seen some rad brick signs that Starr Studios have done in the past and would love to have that under my belt. As far as images or lettering, I would love to have a client want a chipped glass sign. It is a long tedious process but the outcome is always beautiful.
Talking about cool signs, what do you think of neon signs?
Neon signs are awesome! Neon definitely helps clients see your business visually at night. If bright and done well they are just amazing. Really good neon seems to be hard to find where I live, but Liberty Tattoo in Seattle has some really awesome neon at their shop!
INTERVIEW BY MARCO ANNUNZIATA
As originally featured in Pinstriping & Kustom Graphics magazine Issue#50 June/July 2015