Some of Neill’s signs are faithful reproductions of actual signs—the sign for the old Teshima Grocery Store of Kainaliu, for example (which the Teshima family later converted into Teshima’s Restaurant, the grand dame of South Kona Japanese eateries). Most of the faithful reproductions are local, but as Neill’s fame has spread, so has his range. He recently did a sign with the logo of the Zapata Offshore Drilling Company of Houston, Texas—a sign commissioned as a gift for former US President George Herbert Walker Bush, who once headed Zapata.
Other Neill signs are more creative and fanciful, what he describes as “my impression of what these signs would have or could have or should have looked like fifty or seventy-five years ago.” Often those semi-imagined signs will commemorate a historic event, like the day a local airline began replacing its Sikorsky flying boats with airplanes that could take off and touch down on land.
“In mid-1941 Inter-Island Airways ordered three brand-new DC-3s, land planes,” Neill explains. “It was all set up so that the three planes would fly in tandem to Honolulu Airport. On October 1, 1941, they had a ceremony at the airport, waiting for the planes to arrive. At that point it was the longest overwater flight for a DC-3.” And when the planes arrived, they bore a surprise.
“On the side of the airplanes was printed ‘Hawaiian Airlines.’ That was when Inter- Island Airways changed its name.”
Coincidentally the planes arrived only seven weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. When the war started, the military took over the planes and, Neill notes, “The public was not allowed to fly on them that much.” Inspired by the tale, the commem-orative sign he painted features a DC-3 landing on O‘ahu and the logo, “We changed our name!”
Many of Neill’s signs reflect his shared passions for aeronautics and surfing. His fascination with historic planes started when he was a teen doing projects with his father for a company called Movieland of the Air, which prepped vintage aircraft for the movies. Neill painted insignia on World War I fighters for The Great Waldo Pepper and did the nose art and lettering on a fleet of WWII-vintage B-25 bombers for Catch-22. One of his most vivid memories is of watching those bombers take off from the Orange County airport to go to the movie set: “Man, that was a sight. All those B-25s lined up to leave, all those roaring engines … Wow.”
Today, Neill is a walking library of aviation history, especially Hawai‘i’s aviation history. He can rattle off the entire inventory, for instance, of Pan Am’s flying boat fleet, which opened the Pacific to commercial air traffic. Neill knows not just the types of aircraft—Martin M-130s, Sikorsky S-42s and Boeing 314s—but also how many of each model Pan Am flew and even the names of each individual plane (all contained the word “clipper” and the name of a place, such as the China Clipper or the Philippine Clipper). He can also tell you what happened to many of those planes. The Hawaii Clipper, for instance, “was carrying passengers to Hong Kong. When it left Guam, it was in radio contact—then silence. It disappeared without a trace. … It was carrying not just passengers, but $3 million from the Chinese-American community for Chiang Kai-shek.” The Japanese, he speculates, might have found out that the plane was carrying aid for the Chinese leader and intercepted it. Probably no one, Neill says, will ever know for sure.
Neill first lived in Hawai‘i when he was 16; his father had moved the family to the Islands for a year and set up a sign shop near Honolulu Airport. In 1994, Neill himself moved his entire family to Hawai‘i after years of running his own sign shop in Sun Valley, Idaho. He was tired of “all that snow,” and he was ready to give more of his life to surfing—his love of the sport is on clear display in his studio, and his wall of surfboard shop signs is peppered with the autographs of surfing legends including Greg Noll, Woody Brown, Joe Quigg, Dale Velzy, Joey Cabell and Don Uchimura. Neill has particularly fond memories of Uchimura, a veteran of the famous 100th battalion, who opened Don’s Surf Boards in Wailuku after World War II.
“Don was both a sign painter and a surfboard maker. I worked for him in the ’60s,” Neill recalls. “I started surfing when I was 13, right after Gidget. Cliff Robertson played The Big Kahuna in Gidget, and for a while he was a partner in a surf shop with Dave Sweet, a famous surfboard maker who’s been making boards since 1949. My first surfboard was a Robertson & Sweet.” Neill just completed two signs depicting Sweet’s famous logo—one as a gift for Sweet and one to hang on his own wall.