Issue 15.2: April/May 2012

Signs from the Times

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.”

 


 

 

To get inspiration for his designs, Neill has accumulated a huge library of Hawaiiana; he draws his design ideas, styles and imagery not just from territorial period signs, but from other period artwork such as print ads and aloha shirts. He starts with shapes: rectangles, squares, ovals, circles and a sort of fluted chevron that was common in Art Deco design. One of his faux hotel signs, for instance, is similar to the actual Art Deco sign that still graces the plantation-era Manago Hotel in South Kona—even though Neill’s sign is made of wood and the original is neon. Most paintings (and most modern billboards) are rectangular, but when it comes to Neill’s work, the shapes of the signs and the shapes of their images complement each other: A sign featuring a hula girl or a pineapple, for instance, is likely to be a vertical oval while a Pan Am sign featuring a flying boat will often be a horizontal oval. Or something more complex: One faux Pan Am sign features an image of a flying boat passing above Diamond Head, and the board that holds it is a modified rectangle, with a concave curve cut out of each corner and a dome at the top to accommodate a logo.

 

A Neill sign starts with either a sheet of Masonite or a plank of wood as well as a paper template called a “pounce pattern,” on which artwork and lettering are outlined and lines are perforated with small holes. Neill applies a base coat of paint, then lays the pattern over the board and rubs it with a “pounce bag,” a cloth bag loaded with powdered charcoal, to transfer the design. Then he paints or airbrushes in the lettering and artwork and applies a layer of clear, waterproof sealant. (Sign of the times: When he called up a sign maker’s supply house recently to order more charcoal, the woman who answered the phone had no idea what a pounce bag was.)

 

Once the sign is made, it is aged. Neill has developed his own nine-step system to artificially age each sign, and the end products look remarkably authentic: Each sign has a stained patina that really appears to be the result of years in the sun and rain—complete with subtle little runnels where water, over time, appears to have worn through an outer layer of faded varnish and ingrained grit. “People have tried to copy this effect,” he remarks. “They always end up so junk that I don’t worry about it.”

 

But there are two ways to tell at a glance whether a sign is a real antique or a Neill sign. First, Neill always signs and numbers his work on the back. Second, as the last step of his antiquing process he always makes an angular scratch “at about the 11 o’clock position on the sign.”

 

In terms of their workmanship, these are real, functional signs built to stand up to the weather. They may already look fifty years old, but they could hang outdoors for another fifty if need be.

 


 

 

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.

 


 

 

So, are his signs really art? Neill finds the question unimportant. “I don’t allude to being an artist,” he says. “I am what I am: a sign painter. I found a little niche, so now I don’t have to dig holes and put signs in the ground or paint letters on the side of a building with ladders and a plank.”