Artist Chuck Dorsey crouches down, cutting a letter out of tape on the wall of Certified Customs, a tattoo, piercing and barber shop on South Broadway. He's wearing an old painter's shirt, splotched with bright colors, and drops his knife in his bag to pick up a fistful of brushes.
Dorsey's well-known in the South Broadway area. He's painted signs for many of the businesses in the area, and his antique style brightens up the store fronts. He uses a meticulous old school technique, and his attention to detail is apparent. He took some time to talk to us about learning from his grandfather, growing up in California in the '60s and how South Broadway has changed for the better.
What kind of method do you use to paint your signs?
I guess I call it the "old school" way, because now you can just go out and get vinyl, which is faster. I use a stencil knife to cut the design out. Vinyl is the same way, and I do that sometimes too. But, I like the old way because the paint I use is good old one shot paint. It's the only paint on the market that has lead in it, which is not good, but it makes it look nice and shiny, which is nice.
Also, this paint lasts a long time. I've done signs for 25 years, and some of them are still around from the late 80s and look really nice -- a nice shine to it, and a nice glean to it. Most people do signs so they'll fall apart and the artist gets to do it again, but not me. Once my signs are painted, they stay painted. Which is not great for my cash flow, but oh well.
Chuck Dorsey outside Certified Customs
Photo by Sarah McMahon
How long have you been painting signs?
I always tell people the story that my granddad taught me to paint. He taught me the business when I was a kid. He was a sign painter, back in the day. But then it really took off when I went into the military, I guess. You see, I was a lifeguard and they saw my artwork and they turned me around and said, "Become a division artist."
What is a division artist? What does that entail?
Well mostly just doing logos for the different companies. Especially the big ones, because not many people could do big logos at the time. And as a kid in California, it was easy to do. Well, not easy, easy. But, it was kind of fun. And it got me a lot of work, too.
So, your grandfather got you into the business?
Somewhat. He said I should be an artist as a kid. At the time though, in California, I was a surfer and I wanted to be a lifeguard. I thought it was the best way to stay in shape, and meet a lot of good people. And it was fun work. That changed though, when I joined the army.
Do you do this full time then?
Yes. I've been in town since 1981, and that's how long I've been working here, with signs, as well. I went to the Colorado Art Institute, and when I graduated I thought of going into commercial art, but they said, "No. Do signs." So, I kept doing signs and now I think I'm stuck in it.
Detail of Certified Customs Window, by Chuck Dorsey
Photo by Sarah McMahon
Where else have you done signs?
I've done works all up and down the area. I've done a couple of pieces at Famous Pizza, including the columns and the little sign on the side. I've also done some other restaurants and Buzzz-D Hair. I've done artwork at Pasquini's Pizzeria and I did - oh, well. I don't want to brag. Most of my best work's up on Antique Row, though.
You can brag.
Nah. It's okay.
What is your process?
You just use this good old fresco tape, I get it at an art deco store. Then, take a regular ruler and get the correct dimensions. That's where art comes in because you get the curves and everything by using regular pencil lines. Then I take my ruler and take the stencil knife and just cut it out.
And again, that's where the art comes in - cutting it out. Nobody ever says that, either. But I still have a steady hand, which I can't believe because I grew up in the late '60s in California. People always say they have flashbacks, I always say I have flash-forwards.
Do you think this type of art is on it's way out?
I think not. For the last 20 years, everyone keeps saying, "Hey kid, you're the last of a dying breed." And I guess I'm still keeping it going. I know a lot of good artists and sign painters, and I think it's never going to fade away. I hear in the Hills they still have painters doing old fashioned wooden signs.
Detail of Certified Customs, by Chuck Dorsey
Photo by Sarah McMahon
What do you enjoy about window painting?
I guess it's that to me it's not even considered hard work. I like it because when you make a good sign for a new company, it really gets me going. I've helped a lot companies, I guess, when they're starting out. When they get bigger, they go to other bigger sign companies. That's okay, too. Over the years I've seen South Broadway go from just a little dirty strip to another LoDo, or something like that. I like to think that I've helped in that.
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To me, though, it's just work. No. That's not true. It's still a lot of fun. In high school my guidance counselor said I should be a commercial artist and I asked, "Why?" He said, "All you have to do is pick up a pencil." And that's true.
For more information, or to contact Chuck Dorsey at 303-589-7263