Local sign painter brings unique designs into modern businesses

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Gary Martin, a sign painter for more than 30 years, creates signs for popular Austin establishments such as Torchy’s Tacos, Threadgill’s and P.Terry’s. Martin, an artist since childhood, has clients all over the country.

Photo Credit: Danielle Villasana | Daily Texan Staff

You might not have ever met Gary Martin, but if you’ve ever taken a drive through Austin, chances are you’ve seen
his handiwork.

Martin is an Austin-based sign painter who designs and paints signs for businesses local and nationwide. Austin originals such as P. Terry’s, Magnolia Cafe, Freddie’s and Threadgill’s, to name a few, all make use of Martin’s signature style. His work, which encompasses interior and exterior signage, both neon and painted, usually brings to mind an older, friendlier time — “folk-arty,” Martin offered — with its comfortable color schemes and recognizable lettering.

“I try to stay fresh, and I try not to go with the flow of what’s currently popular,” said Martin, 63. “Because whatever you see that’s popular these days will be out of style in six months. I try to do my own thing. I try to make eye candy. When you look at it, you’re going to feel good. That’s my main thing — good layout and a good color scheme. Something that makes you happy and not disturbed by seeing it.”

He works from his shop in Central Austin, a yellow building labeled “MARTIN SIGNS” in unassuming, straightforward lettering. It’s stuffed with an eclectic collection of paints, brushes and books — some of it organized onto shelves, some of it strewn loosely on tables. The materials all play a part in creating the kinds of custom signs that seem to have largely faded from 2011’s urban landscape, replaced by the generic, vinyl signage of sprawling chain stores — not necessarily a good thing, Martin said.

“It’s just a sterile, unsophisticated, boring look,” Martin said. “There’s just no heart. It’s meant to be out there just to tell you what’s there, it doesn’t give you any sort of feeling or anything. It’s not artwork.”

He said sign designers today are more likely to use a computer, a shift that has been a double-edged sword as far as custom aesthetics go. Martin believes that the computerization of the craft has led to the widespread “sterile” signage, but he recognizes that “in the hands of a sign painter and a great artist, a computer can be a great thing.” Martin said that there are only several hundred commercial sign painters like him in the U.S. and only three or four in Austin.

Regardless, Martin, who grew up in San Antonio, has been painting signs for 35 years. He doesn’t use a computer and tries to stick to using hand-drawn designs. When he needs to get a project done quickly, he’ll resort to using a vinyl-cutting machine that’s more than 25 years old.

“When these guys who own these big fancy shops come in and they see my vinyl-cutting machine, they don’t even know what it is,” Martin said. “Because it’s so old, they just laugh at it.”

The way one of Martin’s signs will look when it’s finished depends on a variety of factors ­— the distance the sign will be seen from and the type of business the sign is for, for example — but Martin’s decisions regarding color and lettering give the sign his unique touch.

“I don’t know that I would have a description of his style,” said Eddie Wilson, who owns Threadgill’s and is a repeat Martin’s Signs customer. “I just think of it as ‘Gary Martin.’ It’s a combination of quality style and a retro sense that he didn’t have to go back to — he brought it forward with him. I can spot his work from a mile away.”

Martin said that his style is influenced by the art of the first half of the 20th century and Pre-Raphaelite artists such as William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, who eschewed the “cheapness” of the Industrial Revolution and embraced “the romance of the Middle Ages, when things were really well made.”

Those 19th century ideals are seeing a reemergence in America, Martin said. New movements that reject generic, vinyl signage and want to revive original sign craftsmanship are growing — “people are sick of boring, still things,” Martin said. “The plastic.”

The movements haven’t neglected Austin, where, thanks to Martin and other local sign painters like him, custom-painted signs aren’t as uncommon as they are in other places. As such, Martin said people interested in sign painting are moving here to take advantage of the atmosphere.

“Austin is not your typical town,” Martin said. “There are definitely sign painters here that give it character. I’d say that I have some small part in making the city look better. Most towns don’t have these creative sign sort of people in them, so Austin is a very special place for that.”

However, Austin-based sign painters need to keep the sometimes-brutal summers in mind, which Martin said shouldn’t be underestimated.

“In the Texas sun, a sign really only lasts like five years,” Martin said. “That’s why I like to do interior signs — they’re going to last a long time. If you create something and it’s gone in a couple of years, it’s not a good feeling.”