Content – From the Archives – Ken Davis

My Art Resources is excited to collaborate with Content Magazine to bring you a new monthly blog post Content – From the Archives. We will be looking back and featuring some of the best artist interviews and stories from past issues of Content Magazine.

Ken Davis

From Content Magazine
Issue 6.1 Sight & Sound
Written by Kathryn Hunts

Photography by Scott MacDonald

Ken Davis’ studio is covered with skateboard decks, shelves of records, and reference books as an ode to the tangible. He prefers to have these items as a reminder to slow down. None of his research is done online, preferring to hunt down a rare book instead of staring at a scan. But the extra effort shows in his work. His meticulous eye and dedication to doing things the right way at every stage of production are sure signs that clients are getting a quality product.

Davis sees sign painting as a way of leveling the playing field for small businesses that must compete with big box stores. He grew up in Fremont’s Niles District lined with antique stores and biker bars. The hand rendering in their signs stuck with him because they were so pleasing to the eye. Now the region has become focused on tech, and hand painted signs are a soothing break from bright screens and Helvetica font. With each sign he is commissioned comes a sense of honor and duty to bring that human touch back.

“You can take your distaste for something and change it with something you really like to do,” Davis says. “I don’t particularly like the fact that I have a homogenized world in front of me and every stop off the freeway has the same four stores. I feel like I can fix that in my own way by someone approaching me for a sign. I can make it look different and encourage someone to be self-empowered and start off on their own and not be fully content with going along with the herd of something.”

Like any time-honored craft, newcomers learn through an apprenticeship: a commitment to pour his or her soul into countless hours of practice without pay. New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco gave Davis that chance to learn, something he never took for granted. For the next three years, he would show up hours before anyone else to practice drawing each letter of the alphabet in different styles. The long hours and dedication to a dream can take a toll on relationships and finances, but Davis explains, “When you get into any sort of craft, I feel like you have to send a pound of your flesh to it and be fully prepared to make sacrifices.” It eventually paid off for Davis,
who now operates independently with a global client list and the respect of his peers.

In his work, Davis pays homage to legends such as the late Rey Giese from San Jose while infusing his own style. Toeing the line between honoring the past and pushing the boundaries can be tricky, but Davis sees everything from 1960s psychedelic to Victorian trade cards as a jumping-off point.

“My ultimate nightmare is to be comfortable in something and have a formula for everything to where someone can right out the gate say, ‘Oh that looks exactly like what he did ten years ago.’ I would never want that for myself and the only way I think of doing it is always trying to find something new to get inspired by.”

From drawing album covers to company logos, the demand is rising for Davis’ art. His goal is to keep doing this as long as he possibly can (Giese did it until he was 93), and part of that is establishing his own voice. Knowing the rules is the basis for authenticity in sign painting. For example, learning how to lay out a design correctly so that it is easy on the eye is essential to the craft. Davis puts his phone in a drawer and gives his full attention to each detail. The greats figured out things like layout to help pull in a stranger’s attention. Now it’s about what you do with it.
“I look at stuff that’s has come hundreds of years before me,” Davis says. “The gold leaf techniques that I’m doing on windows for 5 Color Cowboy or Empire Seven, or Black and Brown, those techniques have been around and done by people that executed it really well. So in the grand scheme of things, I’m not really some next level zeitgeist of design doing what I’m doing. I’m just kind of kicking up dust from an old trail and doing it in my own view and my own vision and hopefully that makes my time on the world worth it by doing that, and kind of giving my own look on things.”


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