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Artist Dusts Off Rare Skills by Hand-Painting Old Signs for LIC Businesses

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | October 15, 2012 7:27am

LONG ISLAND CITY — Kenneth Burris has been hand-painting giant billboards and murals for many years.

But about a decade ago, his rare skills were replaced by computers. Burris worked on some projects with mural artist Howie Keck and was a production artist at the Peter Max studio in the interim, but was looking to find a new use for his talent.

Then, an idea came to him while he was walking around Long Island City, where the old industrial buildings and warehouses are a still big part of the landscape. He noticed that a lot of old business signs in the area had faded.

“I wanted to reinvent some of my skills and I decided to use them to reinvigorate sign-painting in the neighborhood,” said Burris, 43, who moved to New York from Ohio 12 years ago.

Burris walked into the first business on his way — Van Owners, a company supplying protected materials for art shipping and the film industry on 45th Avenue — and asked the owner, Joyce Pierce, if she wanted her business sign to be repainted.

“Where have you been?” Pierce asked him. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

It turned out that Pierce had been looking for someone to repaint her decades-old business sign as well as the company’s trucks.

“I didn’t realize they stopped doing it and that everybody was doing this vinyl lettering now,” said Joyce, whose company was founded in 1932 and originally was an association for the movers. “And I didn’t like it. I wanted the sign to look the same, just like my father had it.”

She hired Burris right away.

Burris, who used to have his studio at 5 Pointz before the space closed in 2009, painted the sign at the entrance in about a week. Now, he is painting letters on the company’s trucks and will later design some drawings to go with them.

The hand-painted sign business is so obscure that Burris had a hard time finding a proper paint. He had to order “One Shot,” a special enamel sign painters purchase at the TriBeCa specialty store, Pearl Paint.

And it wasn’t cheap: a pint costs about $40.

For hand painting a large sign, Burris charges from $1,000 to $3,000 and for painting a truck he asks for $2,000 to $5,000 (paint included).

Other businesses in the area also expressed interested and want Burris to repaint their signs and trucks.

Barry Blaine, the owner of the nearby bakery City Baking, is already planning the design — he wants his trucks to show the variety of cookies he bakes.

“It’s so neat,” Blaine said. “It’s just something I’d like done.”