It's rare to see a business sporting a new sign painted by hand. But if you do, especially on Pittsburgh's South Side, there's a good chance it's the work of Pepe Buylla. The McKeesport native and grandson of Spanish immigrants has painted signs from coast to coast. Back in Pittsburgh since the early '90s, the 48-year-old South Sider is among a handful in the region still practicing the craft he calls "sign-writing."
How did you start?
My father knew how to do a lot of things. He always knew how to draw. When I was 13, he was working for the Port Authority. Someone wanted him to hand-letter a sign, four 4'-by-8' panels -- billboards for Gulf home heating oil. I wanted to do it and he wouldn't let me do it. When the guy came to pick up the signs, my dad told him about me. The guy said, "Well, I'll go get a 4'-by-8' and you can make one." That was the first one I did.
The guy did one very important thing after I made it: He paid me for it.
How did you learn from there?
I started getting books on it; my father helped me. I was sucked into it. I really liked drawing, and this was a way to make money drawing. When I got out of high school, I went all over the country working for different [sign] shops and picked up things here and there.
Where did you work?
Columbus [Ohio], Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, New York, Atlantic City. Any shop that would take me, 'cause I wanted to learn whatever I could learn. Hopefully there was a painter there who took a liking to you and [would] show you. If I liked the town, I'd get a job in a shop for a week or two then go off on my own.
What are some local projects you've done?
My favorite job over here, one of them would be Cupka's [Café], and the other would be The Culture Shop. The Culture Shop, that sign looks like it's actually part of that building. Although the E House, across the street, that won an award.
Why are there so few sign-writers left?
Everything is vinyl ... stuff. Everybody can buy one of those computers, cut the thing on vinyl -- the computer does all of it. I remember when vinyl first came out, late '80s; the first machine I saw was over in Sharpsburg. I knew it was the beginning of the end.
What's the matter with vinyl?
Anybody can get into it: They don't have to know anything about the formation of letters. Sometimes I wonder if half of them know anything about layout. Really: If you have a 4'-by-8' sign and you have the copy two inches from the end, and try to put big letters to make it readable -- what makes a sign readable is not the size of the letter. What makes a sign readable is the space around the letter.
The biggest peeve I have with the vinyl is, most of the fonts, they're not meaty enough. The scrips I see off of computer-generated graphics are awful. They don't bounce, there's no life to them.
There's a lot of signage, if you're two feet away from it, it looks fine. But back up across the street [and] you can't read it.
Do customers know what they want in a sign?
Any more, half and half. I really like it when they have no idea at all what they want. A lot of times they'll give me a drawing and I won't do it, if I think it's really bad. A lot of times they're more interested in being far out than in something you can read.
Do you do other kinds of painting?
I'm getting more into commercial painting. Whole buildings. I do marbleizing, faux finish, decorative borders. Anymore usually I don't set out looking for signage [work]. Because a lot of times I'm going to be up against vinyl, and I just can't compete with the pricing.
With specialized designs, you have an advantage over the machines?
You're not going to find a font like [I can make]. By the time you program it in, I'm going to have it laid out and drawn, all right? You can't pull the plug on me. This computer doesn't break down.