Story by Alan D. McNarie
Photos by Dana Edmunds
Steven Neill has spent a lifetime in a trade that has its fair share of glamor: In his time, Neill has hand-lettered antique insignia for Hollywood movies and painted fanciful names on the sterns of celebrities’ yachts. He’s dipped into delicate gold leaf to apply names on banks and numbers on fire engines. He’s courted danger by perching several stories above the ground, crouched on scaffolding as he painted giant advertisements on the sides of buildings.
Now, sitting in a rural studio on a former macadamia farm in lower Puna, he reminisces about being part of a once-numerous breed: the sign painter. He grew up in the era of hand lettering and billboard painting, and he learned from his father, who owned a series of a sign shops in Southern California.
“I literally grew up in a sign shop,” says Neill as he sits under a wall full of surf shop signs he has handcrafted. “The first sign that I painted that was sold was when I was 12. I learned from all these old ‘sign dogs’—that was what we used to call them back then.”
Disregard his silver hair and white handlebar mustache, and Neill seems younger than his 65 years. That youthfulness comes largely from his enthusiasm when he talks about his work—though his tales of the past are tinged with melancholy because sign painting is a dying art. The skills he learned as a child have now been pushed to the edge of extinction by computer graphics. “The vast majority of signs today are done by printing shops and next-day plastic sign shops,” Neill says. “All the lettering is computer cut-out and stick-on. You try to get a hand-painted sign today and you can’t find one.”
That blow to the sign painting industry, though, has proved a boon to Neill. These days he’s found a second life for his old-time skills—in art galleries. His meticulously researched and crafted signs, invoking the territorial days of flying clippers, Matson liners and Waikiki beach boys, are bestsellers in galleries throughout the Islands.
Ironically, Neill’s metamorphosis from sign dog to gallery artist came about thanks to the entertainment industry he thought he’d left behind when he moved from California. In the late 1990s a short-lived TV series called Wind on Water was filming on the Kona Coast. The series, starring Bo Derek as the glamorous matron of a Hawai‘i ranching family, was pulled after only two episodes; today it’s chiefly remembered in Kona for the rancor it caused by taking over a state beach park as its chief set. But Wind on Water did make one lasting contribution to the local economy when its art director commissioned some period Hawaiian signs from Neill.
“He needed a sign painter who could actually paint signs, because the set designers had to antique them,” Neill recalls. “With stick-on letters you can’t do that.” After the series folded, the art director gave Neill back a couple of his signs, now antiqued, to keep. Neill hung them up at his house with some of his other work and was surprised to find that visitors gravitated to them.
“So I thought I’d try antiquing some Hawaiian signs myself, just to see what they’d look like,” he recalls. “And then I got up the nerve to take them to a couple of art galleries. One of them decided to try it and then sold them quickly and wanted more. I ended up with galleries on all the islands.”