Starr of Texas: One man designs Denton

Starr of Texas: One man designs Denton

June 14
13:46 2013

Photos by Nicole Arnold/ Senior Staff Photographer

William A. Darnell / Senior Staff Writer

Sitting behind a tall, modern pine desk and flanked by dozens of examples of his work on the walls behind him, Sean Starr appears tired but determined. Grayscale Latin words, “Expiscor Veritas,” line Starr’s hardened forearms. The phrase is incorporated into his company’s logo and serves as a mantra for his life and work. Roughly translated, it means “Aggressively seek the truth.”

“I think it influences my whole life,” Starr said.

The steely-eyed 45-year-old sign painter has been extremely busy since returning to Texas a little more than a year ago, starting with a tattoo parlor in Dallas on Lower Greenville. His first Denton job was painting the Bookish Coffee sign on the Square, and since then, mostly by word of mouth, Starr’s designs have popped up all over town. To establish his business, Starr said he would hound owners until they gave him work.

His hand-painted artwork adorns the windows of several local businesses – Royal’s Bagels, Jupiter House Coffee, Atomic Candy, Bullseye Bicycle shop and others in the area – and his company, Starr Studios, is booked solid through the end of July.

Joey Hawkins, owner of Jupiter House Coffee and Royal’s Bagels, said Starr’s re-design of the coffee shop has contributed to increased revenue.

“He has a way of kind of bringing an old school look that doesn’t feel dated,” Hawkins said. “I trust him enough that I let him surprise me.”

History

Starr began sign painting in the late 1980s after deeming work as a window washer unsatisfying.

As soon as he was old enough to work, Starr hit the road in West Texas with his Ukranian, former Golden-Glove boxer father, “the hardest man on earth to work for.”

Starr said his father would drag him out of bed at 4:30 a.m., before the sun rose, and work him until the sun went down, painting signs, cars, trucks and in a bit of occasional glamour, Willie Nelson’s tour bus.

“I got like zero credentials,” Starr said. “I guess technically I apprenticed under my dad, but we weren’t sophisticated enough to know even what that meant at the time.”

Starting Starr Studios

When his father passed away 15 years ago, Starr sought design work in Washington, first in Seattle, Washington, and then in Tacoma, Washington.

In 2005, after working at different design and sign painting companies, Starr headed south to San Francisco, California and settled in the Mission District where he founded Starr Studios. During this time, his style transformed into a mix of Victorian – which utilizes retro-styled fonts – and old school Texan sign painting.

Sign Painting

Starr said sign painting is an industry with closely kept trade secrets, and that some of the same techniques used by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel are still employed.

“It’s the same way that people have done it for thousands of years,” he said.

Starr, however, is not the type of man who guardedly holds knowledge over subordinates or competitors, his 21-year-old apprentice Cole Bridges said.

Bridges sat quietly next to Starr, listening to every word from his mentor, absorbing the craft he started learning in Dallas after high school. He spent a year in China on a mission, where he said he was able to focus on his art, something that has served him well since he began working for Starr in January.

“He’s very giving,” Bridges said. “For me, particularly with knowledge and the trade aspect. He’s very free with it.”

Historically, sign painters have had their own areas of town where their influence was obvious, Starr said.

“I appreciate that he’s been able to come here and give character to things,” Bridges said.

With little competition in Denton – only one other sign painter actively works the area – Starr has been able to develop a clientele base that could soon be expanding across the DFW area, thanks in part to teaching Bridges.

“Anybody that’s still around doing sign painting usually has more work than they can keep up with,” Starr said. “It’s not really adversarial.”

All Roads Lead to Texas

Starr came home to his DFW-based family, including two sisters in Denton, when the “cost of breathing” in California became too much. He brought his wife, Kayleigh, and his business with him.

“We were able to get things rolling really quickly [in California] and it was embraced there,” Starr said. “But living and doing business there was insane.”

Starr had arranged sign painting work in Dallas before his arrival and has not looked back since, completing jobs and putting his fingerprints all over Denton and the DFW area.

His studio, on Acme Street behind Frosty’s Hamburgers, is down an alley in an industrialized area and at first appears unwelcoming.

Once inside, though, the soul of Starr Studios is immediately apparent. Signs and photographs line the walls, red oak risers give the ceiling a rustic look and on the floor, just in front of the doors, a quote by Pablo Picasso perfectly illustrates the attitude of Starr: “Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.”

Starr recently finished work on the decor of Rusty Tacos on Hickory Street and work on the Square One Cafe in Lewisville, an area he said is beginning to come into its own.

Although Starr only recently settled in Denton, his career has already been hugely successful. He’s published several books including “You, Me and Morrissey” which was an official entrant for the 2008 Pulitzer in Letters, serves as an editor of a tradecraft magazine and will curate the upcoming Texas premiere of the sign-painting documentary “Sign Painters.”

Signpainting Sidebar:Starr begins each job by meeting with the client to get a feel for what they want. He sits down and does mulitple sketches by hand and once those are solidified, he scans them into his computer for a vector version. By creating a vector version, Starr is able to expand his drawings to any size. He makes a scale mock up and once the client approves, Starr and company make several patterns on all different sizes of paper, from projecting it to hand drawing. The paper gets “pounced”, which is a technique using an instrument called an electric pounce wheel. The apparatus has an electric stylus, nicknamed a sparkler, that zaps holes into paper which is then padded with a graphite bag, creating a pattern. Starr currently uses an electric pouncer, although finding it was very difficult as they are no longer produced. “We just pray every day that it doesn’t break,” Starr said. If his machine were to break, Starr would revert to using a pounce wheel, a small, pen-sized instrument with a spiked wheel attached to one end, to manually perforate the paper. After he has perforated the holes, either with the “sparkler machine” or with a pounce wheel, Starr and company then paint and render every inch by hand.

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