I grew up in a small rural town in Virginia named Warsaw. From an early age it was obvious to my mother that I had inherited her ability to draw. The public schools I attended did not offer any art education and being raised by a single parent I could not afford a college education. A scholastic test taken my senior year revealed that I was well suited for the trade of sign painter.
I knew a sign painter, in fact, I knew two. One lived in Fredericksburg and the other in Gloucester. As things worked out, I spent a day with Al Zackus of Al Zak Signs in Fredericksburg. I can’t say I learned a lot, not in just one day, but I was inspired, and that was enough to give me the confidence to pursue some small sign painting jobs locally.
About a year later my wife and I decided that if I were to pursue sign painting as a career then we needed to move to a city. She was from Hampton so Hampton is where we headed. I was 22 years old at the time and my wife was only 19.
I beat the pavement, carrying pictures of amateurish looking signs I had made back home, hoping that someone would give me a chance. That someone ended up being Fred Dowis, owner of Sign Engineering in Newport News, VA. He hired me as a subcontractor and set about teaching me the right way to paint signs. I had been using the wrong kind of paint, the wrong kind of brushes and the wrong substrates to paint on. I would compare the skill as similar to learning to ride a bike. It probably took me 6 months of daily practice to learn, but once I got it, it became easier and easier, Incidentally, Fred, now semi-retired, has remained my best friend in business till this day.
Fred encouraged me to choose a name for my business, apply for a business license, and pick up as many sign jobs as I could. I started out as Vicik’s Sign Painting, changed later to Beach Signs and more recently to Red Rocket Signs. I changed the name from Vicik’s Sign Painting because I got tired of people misreading my name as Vicki, a girl’s name. I later dropped Beach Signs when sign businesses called Beach Signs opened in both Virginia Beach and the outer banks of North Carolina and both in the same year. At the time boat lettering was the mainstay of my business and I worked in both regions.
When I changed the name of my business to Red Rocket Signs I also decided to focus on hand lettering as opposed to computer cut vinyl and digital printing. I had always mixed hand-lettering in with my sign work anyway but it had been relegated to maybe 15% of my business. I was ready for a change. It’s not that using vinyl as a method of creating signs is necessarily bad; it was just not what I wanted to do. I wanted to get back to my roots and create something that takes real skill.
I have been very fortunate. I learned to hand letter signs just at the brink when computer sign making equipment was hitting the market. Another couple of years later and the skill would have seemed obsolete. Also I have endured in business long enough to see sign painting come back in vogue. I hope to keep painting signs as long as the local community continues to support me. So remember, “Support your local sign painter”.