Sign painter brings lost art of handpainting and lettering back to Essexville

It’s an art form that Justin Stilson wants to bring back from the past. Pinstriping and custom sign painting were popular before Stilson was born, but the owner of Stilson Sign and Custom in Essexville is bringing back the craft and breathing new life into what was once a lost art.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” says Stilson.

He worked at a shop in Saginaw that specialized in restoring hot rods and muscle cars. He became interested in pinstriping after a former co-worker gave him a hands-on tutorial.

“The guy we had at the time as a body shop manager was an old school guy, and actually he was an old school custom pinstriper and sign painter,” says Stilson.

Stilson asked the manager to help him with some stripes on a car, but instead the manager taught him to do it himself. “He had some paint on his pinstripe brush and asked me if I wanted to try it.”

They started by painting Stilson’s toolbox, mirroring each other back and forth.

“So we were kind of playing ping pong back and forth and the next thing I knew my toolbox was all striped, and I thought, ‘This is cool.’ ”

Justin Stilson was working in a Saginaw workshop when he discovered his interest in handwriting and chalk stripes.He liked it so much that he decided it would be his new show. Within a day or two, he had ordered some letter brushes, scratching brushes, and ink.

“From then on, I started to dedicate myself to the craft and to this type of handicraft. I really loved it.”

Stilson says it took him a few years to get where he could do the job full-time.

“I kept working at the hot rod shop, but I started doing some side jobs and then I had enough work to start doing that full time. It has been a very positive experience.”

He opened his own store in January 2021 and has been building his customer base ever since.

Pinstriping and custom sign painting are niche markets, and Stilson says most people don’t even know about them. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, racing cars were handwritten and striped. He says the letters on trucks and vehicles were all hand-drawn, and he’s particularly interested in that kind of work.

Before opening his own shop, Justin Stilson worked in a body shop and metalworks. He also has a background in art and woodworking. Handwritten and painted signs used to be the marketing tools companies used to advertise. A few decades ago, hand-painted signs fell out of favor because mass-produced vinyl signs were cheaper and easier to make.

“It’s unfortunate that it replaced hand lettering because now people don’t realize the value of hand lettering and what kind of character and feel you can get and how that can influence the visual impact of something.”

Stilson still sees the value in art.

“Cities used to be so vibrant with these things and now it’s kind of a lost art. I’m trying to bring it back as much as I can and bring awareness to it.”

He’s not the only one interested in the niche art form. Stilson says he has a number of people who are nostalgia buffs and vintage car guys “who have had experience with sign painters in the past.” He says he also sees a growing number of people appreciating his work.

Everywhere Justin Stilson looks, he sees unique fonts and artwork that he can incorporate into his signs.“It’s something that plays a very valuable role in the community and business,” he says.

While Stilson is passionate about hotrods and classic cars, he has also helped with the restoration of other parts.

“Last summer I restored a floor-standing vault from around 1871,” he says. The safe had been used in a butcher shop at the turn of the last century.

“I was able to take the clothes off and go a step further and redo all the artwork that was originally in the vault,” including the gold leaf. “Gold leaf is something that interests me. It’s a fascinating form of the sign painting industry. It’s real gold and you build your lyrics with it. It was something that was widely used at the time, but it’s something that really interests me and I work a lot.”

Justin Stilson is passionate about restoring classic cars and antiques.Stilson says he has been a hands-on artist all his life and takes advantage of all his experiences. He not only worked in the workshop, but also worked in metal fabrications. He also found inspiration from his parents. Stilson worked with his father as a cabinetmaker. His mother is a natural artist.

“She helped me when I was growing up exploring these different things. I was the kid who was always drawing on his folders instead of paying attention – I was doing that.”

This interest in art and learning to paint the old fashioned way led Stilson to start seeing the world in a different way.

“It’s a visual art form, so everywhere I look now, I can see things that are interesting to me – even just lyrics. There are so many different alphabet styles and fonts and things like that that fascinate me.”

Stilson says it’s not just the lyrics and art, but looking at old signs and store trucks of people that inspire him. He also likes to see photos from the past. “That’s what I really like – is bringing that character back.”

To learn more about Stilson and what he does, visit his Facebook page where he also has some videos posted of his work.

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