Tony's LA: The Art Of Sign Painting - Los Angeles News | FOX 11 LA KTTV

Tony's LA: The Art Of Sign Painting

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Los Angeles, CA -

(FOX 11) In this edition of his Fox 11 Special, "Tony's LA" host Tony Valdez meets the people and takes us to the places that make Los Angeles so unique.

If you think the art of sign-painting is dead, think again. A new crop of students is learning the trade, and doing it the old-fashioned way.

"Today, right now, I've got two or three guys who are in court somewhere, right now, they should be in here but they're in court!" said Ralph "Doc" Guthrie of LA Tech Trade. "I'm like every fat, white, bald boss they ever had, I'm there to get the job done and they understand that."

You've just been introduced to "Doc" Guthrie. His mother called him Ralph. He teaches Sign Graphics at Los Angeles Trade Technical College.

"My brother and I graduated from this program in the middle 70s, we're perfect examples of what the programs here at Trade Tech are all about," he said.

"My brother and I worked for journeymen sign painters, learned and then opened our own business in the Bay Area and did it for 35-40 years and now I'm back teaching the same class."

So what's the most difficult letter to make?

"Hmm, I think all the curved strokes, all the rounded letters are pretty difficult," he answered.

These students are in the first year of the two-year sign program at Trade Tech. They are on the leading edge of a hand painted sign renaissance.

"It's not only an art, it's a science, you have to know the right letter forms, you have to know how to design a sign," Ralph said. "A lot of the themed restaurants, all the local theme parks, Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Knott's Berry Farm have our graduates there because they know traditional skills, we teach gold leaf techniques which nobody does anymore and that's coming back."

Aspiring sign painters come here from as far away as South Korea because Trade Tech has a program that's not available anywhere else.

There aren't many women in this class, though.

"I think it's historically been a more male driven profession and historically more men are driven into trade schools but I think there's been a lot more awareness of sign painting lately," Ralph said.

In the process called pouncing, an electric pen burns small holes into a sign pattern to create a stencil. The stencil is put in place and a dark powder is forced through the holes, leaving behind a faint outline that the sign painter can follow to complete the project.

In a way that is not as subtle as pouncing, Ralph leaves his very distinctive imprint on students who come to his classes from every imaginable background.

"These guys come in with incredible skills, they have graffiti backgrounds, they have art backgrounds, there's no question that they can do the sign work, they're so good at it the blow me away all the time, what they can't do is what we euphemistically call 'life skills,' they can't show up on time, they can't call when they're going to be late, they don't always bring their tools; our whole two years is not about sign making or sign painting, it's about getting them ready to be employed and in many cases working for themselves."

Three blocks from Trade Tech is Letter Smith Design, owned by two of Doc's graduates. They've done work for Nike, LA Live and The Original Pantry among others.

Most recently they worked on the Dodger Stadium renovation project.

"We were a bunch of knuckleheads at first," said Peter Velasquez of Letter Smith Design."We just kind of landed in the class and we butted heads at first, this guy doesn't be quite about the same stuff over and over and it's so repetitive and then stuff started to sink in and as the class went on, it was like Dude, he's literally teaching us the real world."

Which means there's an emphasis on self-confidence and resiliency.

"We won't fail, you'll definitely have a unique sign that no one around here can provide," said Octavio Rangel of Letter Smith Design. "All you see now are digital and vinyl prints and those shops, there's probably a million of them here in LA but a shop like this one is the only one, which is us."

Ralph says "this is a fun job, if you're an artist this is a fun job, these graffiti guys they come in here, they're drooling, they're just drooling, 'my God, I can do this?' our old joke is that we change their hours from midnight to 8 to 8 to midnight, and instead of being arrested or shot, they get a pay check!"

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