We only need four letters to describe the final featured guest in our MSN artists series: COOL. Neon pop artist Todd Sanders of Roadhouse Relics is busy these days making hand-weathered signs for people like Shepard Fairey, Johnny Depp, and Billy Gibbons (even Google commissioned a piece for their headquarters!) so we were beyond thrilled when he invited us inside his iconic gallery and workspace on South First. For me and many others, Todd’s work has been a defining contribution to the visual landscape of Austin. Like his glowing Mercury Man that hangs near the stage at The Continental Club, every Roadhouse Relics piece feels like it’s somehow been here forever. On a most perfect South Austin day (with our buddy Chad behind the lens) Todd took us inside his studio and offered us cold beers while we explored his “neon boneyard” out back. We spent the day talking vintage signs, old trucks, and his journey from making commercial signage to fine art…
Todd hangs out in front of the trailer he lived in for 10 years that now sits behind the gallery. The Austin sign, one of his favorites, was rescued from the old Butter Krust Bakery.
Your career in neon has evolved from commercial work to custom movie props and now to fine art. What prompted the transition?
I always wanted to be a fine artist, but didn’t have the confidence to do so when I was younger. So I went into a “practical” form of art: sign making. When I finally gained the confidence, I still had a passion for vintage neon signs — I also had years of technical experience under my belt. It just felt right to become a pop artist working through the medium of neon signs. There was no one else out there at the time; I like to think of myself as a pioneer of sorts.
Your gallery on South First has become pretty iconic. Can you tell us a little about the space and how you use it?
I purchased an old crumbling fruit stand that closed in the 1980’s. I lived in the trailer out back for ten years and restored the space into an art gallery. It’s now my studio where I sketch my designs. I then craft and weather each sign by hand.
You’ve described what you do as “modern vintage”. Is there a certain time period that inspires the “vintage” aspect of your signs?
I follow the school of neon sign makers who came before me, particularly the neon artists of the 1940’s. I recently began adding modern phrases and symbols into my work, to create a paradigm shift in the viewer’s mind. I love when someone thinks my work is actually an antique neon sign — but it has the modern phrase — and they can’t wrap their mind around it until they realize that it’s a new work of art.
Your commercial signs are so much a part of Austin’s vibe and visual landscape now. Was there much neon around when you moved here in the 90’s?
There was no neon on South First Street at that time. There were some antique signs still in use, some of which I rescued and put in my “boneyard” out back. But I no longer make commercial signs. There’s just no legacy to it. A lot of the old signs I made are gone. When a place goes out of business or changes hands… things can end up in the junkyard.
You’ve been described as uniquely self-taught in the neon craft. What resources have built that education?
Four years of college, graphic design and advertising. Four years of apprenticing at a commercial neon sign shop. 20 years of unearthing the old sign techniques from vintage trade journals, and meeting the old neon artists from the 1940’s who were still around.
Do you use digital technology at any point in your process?
I don’t use computer-aided design. You just don’t get the same effect in the work. The designs are sketched by hand, in fact the entire process is done by hand. I think that more and more people have a greater desire to own something made by hand, a true original work.
I stuck with this a long time before it really took off. People didn’t get it. I’d have this perfectly nice sign and then they’d come back two days later and it was all distressed and weathered and messed up. They were like, ‘What’s wrong with you, man?!'”
One wall of Todd’s studio is completely covered in concept sketches.
Do you do commissions or custom work for clients?
I prefer to create pieces and put them in my gallery for purchase, but I do custom commissions as well.
What is your favorite project thus far in your career?
I proposed to my wife with a neon sign. We met when she came into the gallery to buy a work of art — bought it right off the wall. That didn’t happen too often back then… so I felt it was only right to propose with a neon sign.
In what types of spaces has your work been installed?
Movie sets, restaurants… and it eventually started being purchased to go into fine art collections. I remember when I was first sent a photo of a piece I created, flanked by Warhol prints.
What do you love about being an artist?
The proudest moment of my career came when I started supporting myself by making art exclusively. The knowledge that these pieces will live on for many years after I’m gone… a neon legacy.
What do you not love about being an artist?
Nothing. I’ll admit — it’s very hard. I suffered for years, paying my dues up front. But nothing that’s worth doing is ever easy.
Describe your art in five words:
Unique, weathered, glowing pop art.
Todd leans against the 1959 Chevrolet Apache pickup he restored with his father.
I finally found the truck I was looking for online and drove all the way up to Alexandria, Virginia to get it. When I got there it was the biggest piece of junk you’d ever seen. Looked like it was carved out of Bondo. Drove all the way back and found the exact same truck in Conroe, Texas. Right down the road from where I was to begin with. All in pieces — but it was exactly what I wanted.
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*all photos by Chad Wadsworth