Papa Joe Dawson

Published: 20 April, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 198, May, 2011

Papa Joe is a sign writer and tattooist who currently operates out of Boise, Idaho. His hand painted signs are big, bold and ballsy – we felt a need to find out about the man and these amazing signs he creates…

When I was a kid, I loved going to the funfair. All the flashing lights, everything spinning and whirling at a million miles an hour, the noise - it was like being in another world for a few hours. The other thing I loved about the fairs was those hand painted signs outside the booths and rides. Their bright colours and bold lettering announcing another crazy ride or mysterious secret hidden away in some dark corner of the fair. I like to keep an eye out for these signs but you don’t see them for sale that often anymore. I was beginning to think that this style of sign writing was yesterday’s news, and then I met Papa Joe Dawson…

“Being a kid, in the San Francisco Bay area, during the sixties, naturally I became a juvenile delinquent like all my friends. I liked to draw and people seemed to like my art. After learning some lessons the hard way and not wanting a regular job I turned to sign painting.  In 1976, I started working and learning in sign shops in Santa Cruz in California but it was when I moved up to the Oakland Bay area, where I had my real training. Walls, windows, storefronts, wooden signs, awnings, trucks, boats - you name it, I did it!

When I started painting signs, things were different. It was an artist’s trade. Of course there were a few that were ‘mechanics’ but most had some art talent. You really had to pay your dues to be called a sign painter - usually that would take roughly seven years of day to day lettering. When you could lay out and execute correctly, one inch block letters - with very minimal layout - you were getting there. Then you started adding to your ‘bag of tricks’ with gold leaf lettering on glass, real water size made from gelatine and pictorials on signs - stuff like that.”

But as with everything modern, the world of ‘handmade’ signs started to get replaced by mass produced ‘machine made’ signs  - technology enabled them to be created quicker with the added bonus of less staff to pay.

“As the years of sign painting went on, there came the emergence of the ‘sign computer’. These machines had the ability to cut perfect letters of all fonts, all sizes and all shapes! Suddenly the sign trade moved from being an artists trade to a businessman’s endeavour. Like ‘should I open a sandwich shop or a sign shop?’ Things changed rapidly and I was becoming a dinosaur. I would contract to paint signs for companies that had no clue about sign painting. The main problem was that people in general, were getting used to the generic vinyl lettering on a surface. The creativity was disappearing.”

Time for a change in career and Joe found himself entering a world not to far removed from that he had been working in. “I always had an interest in tattooing. I got my first tattoo when I was twenty-two. It was a flower and a banner with the name ‘Donna’ on it. I had just wandered into a shop by a military base in Alameda, California. It was Ricky’s Tattoo - brother of the late Pinky Yun. Donna was the first of my three ex-wives. She apparently was a little smarter because she got a four-leaf clover instead of my name. So one day I traded a sign with a guy, who was opening a new tattoo shop, and in return he taught me the basics of tattooing. He wasn’t very good at tattooing and worse at drawing but I had a starting point. I started trading signs for tattoo work and eventually I all but gave up sign painting for some years. I mainly wanted to concentrate on learning to tattoo.

So I was working for this guy that was ‘teaching’ me mostly wrong techniques and I looked around the shop and all I could see was lousy artwork. In the end, I walked out and started my own studio with what I had figured out. And again, things were different then and people weren’t so free with information. 

Living in the Santa Cruz mountains, I started by tattooing bikers and hippies - my studio was across the street from a biker bar. Then I started doing motorcycle rallies, Sturgis was a regular for me. I always dug the street shop scene, where you take on all comers. You never know what or who will walk through the door. I opened my second studio with a partner in Santa Cruz, it was a nice big shop in an old bank, but due to old habits rearing their ugly heads, this lasted only a couple of years. 

So, I took to the road and ended up in New Orleans working at a series of street shops. Now those are some real street shops - there was always a bat or gun handy for whatever may develop. I guess, at the end of the day, I’m just a walk in tattoo kind of guy. It’s fun to do big sleeves and ongoing projects but I’ve always been kind of partial to putting a tattoo on a hoodlum that gives him a little more swagger and attitude. Or putting a nice ‘girly’ tattoo on a sweet young thing. It is a selfish instant gratification because when they love the tattoo they think you’re great too. Even if you know you’re just like any other clown, you just happen to be an artist.

After hanging around New Orleans for about six years it was time to go. I went through a lot in that town including Hurricane Katrina and Orleans Parish Prison. It is the kind of town that will teach you or kill you! I left there with my mind right. In the end, I moved to Idaho to be near family and started on my own thing. I have a tattoo studio where I work by appointment (no street shop for now) and I have a sign studio as well. There has always been a lot of interest in sign painting from tattooists and I guess, eventually I came full circle.”


Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Papa Joe