When roaming around town, Patrick Piccolo likes paying attention to the old commercial signs that tell tales of Oakland’s past. One of them is located in Temescal at the former site of the original Kasper’s Hot Dogs at 4521 Telegraph Ave. The illuminated box-style sign reads “Kasper’s” in hand-written letters underneath a Coca-Cola advertisement, below a larger rooftop neon sign.
“I’m really hoping that they’re just restoring it and not going to forego,” he said about the restaurant’s planned reopening. “Fingers crossed with that.”
The Kasper’s sign is one of many that Piccolo has appreciated through the years around his Temescal neighborhood and elsewhere in Oakland. In addition to the storefront signs and neon marquees, there are ghost signs—large paintings on the sides of buildings, a popular form of advertising across the country during the early and mid-20th century.
“Some of the first signs that I started really paying attention to were at Tattoo 13 on 49th and Telegraph,” he said. That work was done by a San Francisco veteran of hand lettering known as Jimmy Tha Saint, who recently passed away.
Piccolo is part of a small but tight-knit community of sign painters, a craft that has seen a resurgence as more local businesses and even tech companies opt for the meticulous handmade art over digitally produced signs.
“There’s a couple of us that do it. We’re sprinkled through some cities that have more interest in it, and the Bay Area is one of them,” he said. “But even throughout middle America, it’s still really popular, especially amongst tattoo shops and people who are interested in that aesthetic. They want their signs to represent what they’re selling, which is handmade or unique.”
Although Piccolo didn’t go to college to study art, majoring in history instead, he always had an inclination. He dabbled in graffiti, specifically freight train monikers, also called chalk graffiti or boxcar art.
Around this time, he began looking into the history of sign-making and learned that sign-writing is a unionized trade in some parts of the country, like Los Angeles. He discovered that American singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie was a traveling sign painter before he was a famous folk singer and learned about a non-union contingent of “sign snappers” who traveled the world painting signs during the 1930s and ‘40s.
“They would hop trains with their brushes and would paint quick signs,” he said, “where they would do the chalk lines and do their top and bottom margins and then just paint signs for businesses as they pass through town.”
Piccolo found all these historical tidbits fascinating and validating of his early graffiti work.
In the ensuing years, Piccolo worked his way through various jobs, including his last one at a nonprofit, before he decided that being behind a computer wasn’t something he was interested in doing for the rest of his life. He had already considered getting into sign painting and knew he had to take the plunge.
In early 2014, he began looking for apprenticeship opportunities to get his foot in the door and found that what was once a common job had become a specialized craft—but one that was increasingly coveted.
“When I started trying to get the apprenticeship, businesses were paying more attention to hand-painted signs,” he said, “and it’s only really grown from there. Early on, I felt more like I had to describe what I did to people. Now people just know and seek me out. I like to think of it as a vocation, as an art form, and as a craft. It’s more respected now than it was.”
That same year, he landed the apprenticeship he’d been seeking with Derek McDonald, who at the time owned Golden West Signs in Berkeley and was responsible for numerous hand-painted signs throughout Oakland and the East Bay, including at Children’s Fairyland.
After McDonald moved to Los Angeles and took a job at Disneyland, Piccolo moved on to find work at New Bohemia, a custom hand-painted sign shop in San Francisco. McDonald closed his shop in Berkeley and kept the name for his side business, Golden West Sign Arts. Piccolo continued fostering his own clientele as well as getting referral work from McDonald.
“A lot of folks in the Bay Area that do what I do have gone through New Bohemia,” he said. “That’s where I really learned how to do it as a business, and I learned all of my skills from Derek.”
Today, Piccolo’s detailed hand-painted work can be seen splashed all around Oakland. He has done signs for Family Laundry in East Oakland, Malibu’s Burgers and Timeless Coffee Shop on Piedmont Avenue, Edith’s Pie on 22nd and Broadway, and 1 2 3 4 Go! Records on 40th Street, just to name a few. His gold leaf work can also be seen at residential homes and businesses around the Bay. During the holiday season, Piccolo paints “window splash” designs on storefronts in the Laurel District during the holidays.
Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, a historic 1884 bar at Jack London Square, is the business he was most excited about working with. “I was just happy that they reached out to me to do some work for them because they have a lot of cool old hand-painted signs,” he said. “You can peel back layers of old signs and see years and years of history.”
While the worst months of the pandemic caused many businesses to close, Piccolo stayed busy getting calls from people who were either laid off or quit their jobs and starting new ventures and who needed help with their branding.
When he is not painting signs on windows, Piccolo spends most of his time at his shop in Alameda, surrounded by old lettering books, works in progress, and old sketches, all while playing his vinyl records.
“This one is the bible for gold leaf, and I do a lot of gold leaf around town,” he said, pointing to his copy of Raymond Le Blanc’s 1961 book Gold Leaf Technique spread open on his work table. “It’s the basic how-to, but it also has a lot of cool examples with different techniques.”
He gets “rudimentary inspiration” from E.C Matthews’ 1954 book, Sign Painting Course.
“He talks about layout, where you just look at the shapes that your sign is going to take, regardless of what the lettering is actually going to say,” Piccolo said. “All my books are old and hard to find.”
The process of hand-painting a sign starts with the client letting Piccolo know what they are looking for and if they have a possible design in mind. “Sixty percent of my work is all my own designs,” he said, “and I prefer it that way. Although I don’t mind painting someone else’s design.”
Piccolo will then go on to sketch a few ideas on paper. None of his work is ever done on a computer. It is all done by hand with the help of an overhead projector, when needed, lots of brushes and paint, and other more intricate equipment like an electro pounce machine, a type of paper perforator.
After some back-and-forth exchanging ideas, he’ll trace the design, paint it, and scan the sign for the client to use online. The entire process, he says, takes roughly a month. On average, he works on about 10 to 15 projects per month.
“Sometimes, I’ll be doing a whole bunch of gold leaf window signs. And then other times, it’ll be just doing wall sign after wall sign after wall sign,” he said. “And the process is really similar. It’s just the scale.”
Piccolo is left-handed, which brings a uniqueness to his work since the lettering techniques and tools he uses were created by right-handed people. “I do a lot of things backward,” he said. “Realistically, I shouldn’t be doing all my strokes the way I do.”
He said one great thing about being a left-handed sign painter is how much easier it is to paint in reverse on glass.
Because sign painters are a small community, Piccolo recognizes the challenges for those interested in learning the trade— and he doesn’t want to be a gatekeeper.
“I feel like I’m not the best teacher, but I always invite people to come in to check out the shop,” he said. “Or, if they want to, use some of the equipment or talk about sign painting.”
And while the trade is competitive, he appreciates seeing other sign painters like himself carrying on with the work.
“It’s inspiring when I see other people’s work around. I get excited when I see people that I know,” he said. “It inspires me to do the work that I’m doing.”