Posted on Monday, October 23rd, 2023
Rather than choose the sign industry as a career, most sign people find their way into it by accident. In John Dozier’s case, the seed was planted when he was attracted to urban art and lettering as a teenager. That got him into hand lettering and aerosol murals for fun. In 2005, a San Francisco liquor store owner negotiated a deal where John would be able to have free rein on a mural design if John agreed to paint the store front signs in trade.
Shop name: John Dozier Signs
Location: Sacramento, California
Age: 41 years old
On Instagram as @johndoziersigns
“I realized I had a knack for it,” John says, “and that I could get paid for doing something I really enjoyed doing. I got serious about learning to letter and to design signs.
“In 2011, I was introduced to One Shot Enamel and the proper materials to create hand-painted signs. Early on I was inspired by Sean Barton from Seattle and Ken Davis from Fremont. I took a workshop with Ron Percell of Letterhead Sign Supply and learned the art of gold leafing. I did another workshop with New Bohemia Signs in 2012. In 2012 I went into the sign business.”
Beyond a few workshops, John is mostly self taught. He’s also done some work with Jim Ingram, a longtime Sacramento sign painter and gold leaf pro, learning more in the process.
John tries to incorporate hand lettering in his work as much as possible. He uses the computer to compose layouts and mockups, often doing a drawing by hand then scanning it in to manipulate it on the computer. Most of his designs use hand lettering and hand-drawn styles rather than typefaces because he wants his work to have a custom look.
“This works much better than a commercial location for me. There wasn’t a whole lot of value in the walk in traffic. No one who is walking down the street is going to pop in to buy a hand-lettered gold leaf sign. Most just wanted to talk about signs and see what I did. I’d get interrupted and spend 20 or 30 minutes before they left.”
He works alone and relies on a couple of other sign painters who he can tap when he has a big wall project to do. 75% of his work comes from referrals.
“I have a website and use Instagram,” he says. “Some people do find me through that. But most of my clients have seen my work, or I have done work for someone they know. I have a pretty steady flow of work, which is great. It took a while to build that up, though. When you do custom signs and hand lettering, I’d say that it takes 4 or 5 years to build up enough referrals to have a steady flow of work.”
A few years ago, John was doing a lot of gold leaf windows for tattoo shops and barber shops. The work was usually complex and time-consuming, though, and that means higher selling prices. And because businesses change location or go out of business, they sometimes have a short lifespan.
“You really have to find the right customer for those window jobs,” says John. “When I do a nice gold window, I want it to be around for a while—and that also justifies the cost over time. But I’d say half of the gold windows I’ve done in the past ten years are gone. When people move, the window lettering just gets scraped off.
“I’m a little more particular about who I do gold windows for. I ask how long their lease is and explain that a gold window job will easily last ten years or more. If they may move soon, I give them some alternatives, like a panel on overlaid plywood that hangs inside the shop.”
Lately John has been dialing in his shop to be more efficient and more organized. He’s also always studying and improving his lettering and sketching skills—and finding good markets for his work.
“After 11 years in business, I’ve figured out who I prefer to work with. I’ve worked for a lot of tattoo shops and barber shops in the past. They can get pretty competitive so there are some politics involved. If you do one shop and then do another for a new shop a block away, then the first guy can get ticked off at you.
“So I’ve been getting into the boat lettering scene a little more. I’m finding boat owners are good clients. They’re easy to work with and they want something nice. There are a lot of boats in the Sacramento area, and I’m not too far from Lake Tahoe, either. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is nearby, so there’s plenty of boat work around.
“I’ve done a few boats with Jim Ingram and he’s semi-retired. He’s introduced me to some of the people who do restorations and their facilities are quite nice to work in. I want to grow my business in that direction because those markets still value hand lettering.”