shaping the look of austin

Hand-painted Austin: Joe Swec's stunning signage

Hand-painted Austin: Joe Swec's stunning signage

Austin Photo Set: News_Adrienne Breaux_joe swec_September 2011_3
Austin Photo Set: News_Adrienne Breaux_joe swec_September 2011_2
Austin Photo Set: News_Adrienne Breaux_joe swec_September 2011_1

What do hand-painted signs have to do with the changing look of Austin? A lot, actually. Recent years have seen a whole crop of new businesses, bars and restaurants pop up, especially on the East Side. It’s these interiors and exteriors that are, by their very nature, adding to the new “look” of Austin. While architects and interior designers shoulder much of the credit for influencing Austin’s style, there’s someone else shaping the look Austin in a way that I appreciate aesthetically: Joe Swec, of Joe Swec Hand Painted Signs and Murals.

A former engineer and California transplant (this month marks Joe’s third year living in Austin), Joe’s style is distinct and stunning—and you’ve probably seen his work before. Many of the city’s newest bars sport his sign and mural work: The Grackle exterior brick wall, The East Side Show Room exterior brick wall, East Side Peddle Pushers exterior brick wall, Swan Dive interior brick wall and back patio wall, Barbarella front brick wall, Smokey Denmark interior brick wall and exterior metal sign, Dean Fredrick interior brick wall and display cases, Easy Tiger Bakery and Beer Garden front windows and exterior building sign, El Diablo Taco Trailer sign, Stubb's BBQ exterior event beer signs and Skinny's Ballroom exterior sign, for example.

With a steady hand, Joe’s signs and murals are hand-painted and consist of clean compositions, subtle color palettes and retro-inspired details. He finds his inspiration from many other old and contemporary sign painters who treasure the hand-made way of doing it and looks to the work in older cities such as San Francisco and New York.

 There's something very traditional, inviting, and comfortable about things that are hand painted, and the more a city has, the warmer and classic that city becomes.  

While artists like Margaret Kilgallen, Steve Powers and Geoff McFedridge influence his work, his style is undoubtedly his very own; crisp lines, simple designs, classic styles and a minimalist life translate to his art, resulting in signs and murals that fit perfectly with the personality of the business, blending seamlessly with previous designs and not seeking to stand out—rather, add to the entire look of a place.

Joe’s sister Jana Swec (she’s one of the founding members of Big Medium) is an acclaimed artist who will be joining Joe in the hand-painted sign mural business from now on. And Joe’s sister isn’t his only creative family member:

“My grandfather had a lifelong passion for graphic design, sign painting and calligraphy. My grandma gave me one of his scrapbooks filled with old advertisements and some of his doodles and lettering, and I was hooked after that. I was also a structural engineer before this, so with a lot of drafting experience and an eye for straight edges and right angles, sign and mural painting came more naturally,” says Joe.

Joe’s venture into the hand-painted sign business started out quite gradually, with him seeing a need for such signage at the place he was working at in Austin.

“I was working at the East Side Show Room as a waiter and I approached the owner Mickey about helping with their lack of signage. I presented the idea of what now is the exterior brick wall mural on the corner of Medina and E. 6th. Then, since that went so well, I began asking around about bars opening up and who might need signage. Since there have been so many new bars and restaurants…it wasn't hard to find a good amount of work to build a portfolio,” says Joe.

If you think hand-painted signs and murals are a costly and time-consuming extravagance that only the richest businesses can afford, think again. Joe’s style and background in engineering mix to create a perfect combination to create professional, beautiful and persuasive signage quickly. His work doesn’t take as long to complete as other artists because of his simple style and the fact that he doesn’t rely on many colors or shading to create images, but does admit that sometimes the quest for a perfect line might take a bit of time. And because of his background in engineering, he’s primed to come up with solutions, both artistic and practical, for any sign or mural challenge that he might face.

For Joe, the lure of a day job that wasn’t 9 to 5, fulfills him creatively and allows him to work outside (not so appealing in the summer, but darn envious in the spring and fall) isn’t the only reason why he quit a lucrative job in California to become a starving artist in Austin. He definitely senses the effect that his work might have on the look of the city, and hopes he can continue to create work that fills the city with good-looking signage.

“If I could create a perfect city, everything would be individually designed and hand painted. We have a small group of great designers and friends here on the East Side and I think between our designs and my push for hand painting we'll be definitely affecting the look of Austin in the next few years. There's something very traditional, inviting, and comfortable about things that are hand painted, and the more a city has, the warmer and classic that city becomes. That's what I'd like to see,” says Joe. 

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