Down a sharp-edged alley, between looming factories, this doesn’t feel like the place for an artist’s workshop. But tucked away amongst this concrete jungle you’ll find TJ Guzzardi the sign maker, creating traditional, hand-painted signs and art from his studio.
Sitting in the workshop, we’re surrounded by trunks, suitcases, car doors and signs, so many signs, all of which bear traces of TJ’s hand. “Pretty much anything I find I’ll paint on, to sell or even just to put it on my wall,” he tells me.
The painting started early. By 15, TJ was pinstriping his Dad’s hot rod. When I ask, TJ kindly explains that pinstriping involves applying fine lines and pattern work to cars, motorbikes and trucks. The pinstripping led to lettering, and from there TJ started experimenting with his own style.
Chances are, if you’ve been living in and around Melbourne or Sydney in the last three years, you would recognise TJ’s work. Porteño, Chingón Taco Truck, Happy Camper Pizza, his hand-painted signs are distinct and in-demand.
Exactly what you would call his style is less clear-cut. “There are so many different styles I could name that I’ve crammed into my own. Classic, vintage, a kind of carnival…I don’t want to name it as one style because it’s not.” Though the stylised lines and flowers of Fileteado Porteño, the Argentinian street art, do make their way into most of his pieces.
Not even the sanctity of an original 1958 Harley Davidson could intimidate TJ’s art. Safe to say his decision to paint flowers on the fuel tank and golden waves on the rims generated quite a response. “The owner took it to a show late last year where some old school, big biker dude came up to him and said, ‘As much as that’s got flowers on it, because I’ve never seen flowers on a Harley before, that is freaking cool.’ Either way I would have still loved that bike because that’s what I love, but it’s cool that people talk about it now.”
When I ask what he’s thinking about when he’s painting, TJ answers with a grin and points to two signs drying against the wall. “When I painted these signs I had no idea I was going to put the word bar in there. I just started with these colours and patterns, it sort of just comes to me as I go.”
Of course, TJ quickly assures me that when he’s working with a client there’s a firmer plan, but still the sign creates itself as it goes. Before starting a project TJ likes to visit the space, get a feel for the environment and talk over colours and wording with the client. But it’s the minutiae, the colour highlights and shading, that only come out during the painting process. It’s these fine details that create that depth and difference that TJ is known for.
“Even some people now tell me, You’re not a traditional sign writer. I’m not. I never was. I’m an artist so there’s no right or wrong in art.”
Standing beside a table covered in pots of paint and jars of brushes with varying lengths and widths, TJ smiles as he tells me, “It doesn’t feel like a job what I’m doing. I love painting. I just wake up in the morning and want to go paint.”