Meet the Phoenix Artist Keeping Classic Sign Painting Alive
Matt Minjares is keeping an age-old craft alive with the hand-painted signs he creates for Valley businesses.
By Paula M. Bodah | Photography by Mark Lipczynski
You don’t need to visit a museum or a gallery to see Matt Minjares’s distinctive artwork. Travel around the Valley, and chances are you’ll spy one of his creations hanging above the door of a storefront, announcing the menu in a restaurant or bringing color and life to the once-blank brick wall of a building.
Whether it’s a sign for a business or a just-for-fun mural, Minjares’s work often sports the bright colors, cartoonlike figures and retro lettering typical of advertising in the first half of the 20th century. Before vinyl and plastic became ubiquitous, handpainted wood or metal signage was the standard for any kind of business, from motels and restaurants to gas stations and five-and-dimes. Think of a midcentury road trip across America on Route 66 and you get the idea.
Today, it may be cheaper and faster to go with plastic, but Minjares has a thriving practice crafting his vintage-look creations. “A lot of business owners want that look because it gives the idea that their company has been there for a long time,” he says.
Making retro-looking signs wasn’t always in his plans. “I kind of took the long way to get where I am now,” the Phoenix-based artist acknowledges. As a child, he was drawn to art but never had a clear vision for how he might express that interest. An Army kid who moved frequently while growing up, Minjares came to Phoenix to study at the now-defunct Al Collins Graphic Design School. Somehow, that path didn’t feel right, and he decided to try another approach. He attended the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, where, he says, “I discovered I wasn’t into sitting in front of a computer all day.”
“Matt is very creative, super sharp and easy to work with. He’s the best around, from my point of view.”
—Joe Johnston, business owner
Finally, he followed his instincts and focused on the aspects of art that sparked his passion: graphic design, graffiti and the custom painting of automobiles known as pinstriping. “A combination of those things led me to sign painting,” he explains.
His education was largely self-taught. “When I started, there was very little available as far as learning how to do the craft,” he says. “I have a big collection of old reference books starting from the early 1900s. And I was able to find older craftsmen who gave me advice and tips.
Despite the vintage look of his work, Minjares doesn’t eschew technology. In crafting a piece, he usually starts with a hand drawing, which he then converts to digital format so he can manipulate the scale more easily. “If I draw something that is 12 inches square, but it needs to be 10 by 10 feet, I can scale it up without losing quality,” he says.
For standalone signs, he’ll typically use oil paint on metal or wood. Larger-scale work on plaster or stucco or brick call for latex paint, while oil-based enamel lettering paint is his choice on glass. And every once in a while, he’ll add 23-karat gold leaf for a special touch. “That’s a completely different skill, and it was one of the harder things for me to learn,” he says.
Many of Minjares’s clients are such fans of his work, they call on him again and again. Joe Johnston, owner of a handful of businesses in Gilbert, is a frequent client. Joe’s Real BBQ is a veritable showcase of Minjares’s work with a placard above the red-and-white-striped awning; a notice below that suggests ordering online; a whimsical advertisement with a rebus promoting the company’s catering; and a “Welcome to G-Town” mural on the side of the building. “Matt is very creative, super sharp and easy to work with,” says Johnston, who also hired Minjares to craft visuals for his Topo takeout joint, Liberty Market and Johnston Machine Company. “He’s the best around, from my point of view.”
For Minjares, variety is what keeps him happy in his career. “I’ve stayed away from falling into one niche,” he says. “Some people specialize more, in gold leaf, say, or cut-out signs or murals. I don’t like to do one thing all the time.”
He is modest about suggestions that he’s helping to save a dying art. “A lot of people say that because it’s not the primary way signs are made these days,” he says. “It’ll probably never be mainstream again, but the craft itself is not dying.”
Matt Minjares, Phoenix, imakeletters.com.