Making It: Joe Swec, Keeping Hand-Painted Artistry Alive in Austin

Joe Swec, the 33-year-old sign and mural painter behind Joe Swec Sign Painting, admits his life looks very romantic from the outside.

Joe’s officially been making his living as a full-time sign and mural painter for four solid years.

He tries to blame it on his talented fiancée, photographer Julie Cope; she’s the one filling his Instagram feed with shots that make it seem like he spends his entire day painting outside in perfect weather. He points to the annoying business side of things – answering emails, trying to remember to invoice clients – as proof life isn’t all dreamy photo shoots. Press him more, though, and he’ll confess that he does get to spend his day practicing a craft he’s passionate about. That it’s exciting to drive through a city and point to things you’ve painted. There’s no hiding it: Joe Swec is exactly where he wants to be in his career. And yes, it’s as charming in person as it is on screen.

But his life hasn’t taken a straight path to get here. Good at math and interested in how buildings went together, structural engineering seemed like a good choice in college. And it made him a good living for four years after graduating from California Polytechnic State University. But though he wasn’t miserable, the career wasn’t a good fit, and he did what few of us have the guts to do: he dramatically stripped away at his life, getting his expenses and responsibilities down so he could try out different creative jobs until he found one that did fit.

“All I was doing at that point was trying to get life the cheapest I could get it so I could explore everything and eventually land on exactly what I wanted to do. It’s the only way I could think of, to figure out what I wanted to do,” says Joe.

The city of Austin is noticeably more attractive thanks to Joe’s murals and signs.

When he landed in Austin in 2008 from California, he connected with his sister, Jana Swec, and her husband, Shea Little, both artists. He experimented with different mediums, from oil painting to silk screening to collage, supporting his creative explorations with food industry jobs. He helped Shea, Jana and friend Joseph Phillips (then all working under the collaborative art group Sodalitas) on the colorful paint and collage mural at La Condesa. Next, he helped Shea and Jana tackle a massive art piece at Uchiko. Then he had a revelation – a turning point – on a drive back from assisting Jana on another mural job, asking, “Why don’t we just paint murals?”

When Joe first started painting in Austin, the city was exploding. New bars and restaurants were opening everywhere. And Joe took full advantage of the new canvases. Working at East Side Showroom at the time, Joe proposed a mural there, also hand lettering their chalkboards. Then came beer boards for Stubb’s BBQ (designed by Paul Fucik, friend, one-time neighbor and design influencer of Joe’s).

Joe didn’t just stumble on a medium he liked; he found one he was exceptional at. And folks took notice.

Soon, he was doing murals and signs for businesses like The Grackle, East Side Pedal Pushers and more. He spent a year splitting his time between working food industry jobs and working on projects for enthusiastic businesses hungry for his hand-painted aesthetic.

And though he was becoming known as the guy painting signs on the Eastside, he wasn’t quite convinced an old-fashioned craft could make him a living in a modern world. So he got gutsy again: he quit his jobs, went on a three-month surfing trip to Baja and decided that when he came back, he’d give sign painting a full-time shot.

Joe dramatically stripped away… expenses and responsibilities down so he could try out different creative jobs.

“When I got back from that Baja trip, I started taking any job other than food service, which was immediately sign-painting jobs. There were a few already lined up from the work I had done the year before. And then I got more jobs from those jobs. And I was quickly making enough money to live my lifestyle, which was very minimal. And then I could slowly start building my life back up. Getting my own place to live. Getting a car again, getting furniture again. Having bills again… and being able to pay all of them,” laughs Joe.

Cut to now, and Joe’s officially been making his living as a full-time sign and mural painter for four solid years. There’s so much work, his sister Jana paints several days a week, and Julie doesn’t just photograph and handle the marketing; she paints as well. His success is evident from his very public portfolio on display at hip Austin places like Hillside Farmacy, Quickie Pickie, TOMS Austin, Wheatsville Co-op, Easy Tiger, Fresa’s, Flat Track Coffee and Perla’s Seafood & Oyster Bar, to only name very few. And it’s not just sides of buildings and menus he paints – his work has appeared on everything from vans to motorcycle helmets, commissioned by creative folks eager to add Joe’s signature hand-painted style to their lives.

Pretty impressive for someone who didn’t officially apprentice with sign painters (the way many folks in this profession usually learn the ropes), instead teaching himself the craft, getting inspired by the work of local painters and designers and doing lots of practicing.

Joe’s father is a great painter, and Joe’s grandfather had a lifelong passion for hand lettering, and calligraphy.

Maybe it’s also in his blood: Joe’s father is a great painter, and Joe’s grandfather had a lifelong passion for hand lettering, design and calligraphy, never doing it for a living, but designing on the side and filling tons of sketchbooks (that Joe later inherited and continues to be inspired by). When Joe talks, you hear how important his family is to him.

But it’s not just Joe’s life that has benefited from his success with the craft; the city of Austin is noticeably more attractive thanks to Joe’s murals and signs. And that’s intentional on his part.

“I was taking trips to San Francisco and walking around the city and seeing all these hand-painted signs. And I started realizing that all the best sign-painting was in cities like San Francisco, where I was from. It started making me realize so much of a city’s beauty and ambiance comes when things are hand-painted. Either faded old signs or painted new signs or murals on brick walls and things like that. It all adds to a certain feel in a city that I really like. So I came back to Austin after doing trips like that, thinking I could do my part in trying to make Austin feel like that. If we stopped doing vinyl and everyone started hand painting murals and windows and signs the city would be a way cooler place. Less stale. Classic,” says Joe.

Tucked in the corner of an Eastside woodshop, Joe’s cozy painting studio is filled with in-progress work for clients and just-for-fun hand-lettered phrases on varied surfaces. “I’m alright” decorates a window pane. “You can surf later” perks up a rusted green toolbox. A wooden box in the back asks, “Who wants to marry an artist?” In the office he shares with the woodworkers is a pile of smooth, heavy gray rocks waiting to be painted for a retail store. On his desk, a yellow Post-it note partially hidden under a vintage hand-lettering book simply reads, “David wants art.” One gets the sense that nearly every surface surrounding Joe has the potential for hand-painted transformation – and that nearly everyone in Austin would love to have something he’s transformed.

So much of a city’s beauty and ambiance comes when things are hand-painted.
– JOE SWEC


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Writing & Photography: Adrienne Breaux


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