A Forgotten Beauty: Professional sign painter, Kent Gabriel talks about his industry

One of Gabe's signs that was out at Portland Speedway - On loan from Mike Bell

One of Gabe's signs that was out at Portland Speedway - On loan from Mike Bell

Kent ‘Gabe’ Gabriel has been a professional sign painter for more than 40 years. His canvases have ranged from tugboats to racecars to static pylons and billboards. An independent, one-man corporation, Gabriel does vinyl lettering and airbrush work but his specialty is hand lettering. “Paint is my favorite. It is almost one of those retro things. People like it.” A local, Gabe graduated from Benson High School and took his portfolio to Portland Sign Company for an apprenticeship. Many years later, a good percentage of his projects are related to motorsports from doing signage out at Portland International Raceway or type on racecars. Before the age of vinyl and wraps, all race car sponsors and numbers were laid out and painted by hand.

One of Gabe's signs that was out at Portland Speedway - On loan from Mike Bell

One of Gabe's signs that was out at Portland Speedway - On loan from Mike Bell

Being a sign painter is a dying art form with the innovation of vinyl. Though a good vinyl artist can create nice work, it is much more wasteful. “All I need when I paint by hand is a small Dixie cup with a color and I can do all the numbers on a racecar.” Gabe explains. Another way that vinyl is putting artists like Gabe out of business is lack of interest from the next generation. With big chains hiring students right out of school there is often a significant void of experience. “There are very few of us sign painters left in Portland. The young would benefit from practice.” By practice Gabe is referring to apprenticeship. Without lots of real world work experience, students often skip all necessary education involved with sign painting and typography and go right into vinyl work. “It isn’t that easy,” says Gabe.

Why is this trade important? Because it is a meticulous art form that can be beautiful when done correctly. It is a practical application of typography and is a medium that can eloquently communicate anything. Though the industries of sign painting and motorsports aren’t symbiotic, they do create some overlap. Not just anyone can create this type of practical art. “There has to be creative ability.” In fact, painting on race cars is Gabe’s favorite canvas. “I like the curvature and there are certain challenges to work with. There are three dimensions, and you have to think about different lighting” describes Gabe.

One of Gabe's many race car paint schemes done completely by hand. Photo provided by Champ Avery

One of Gabe's many race car paint schemes done completely by hand. Photo provided by Champ Avery

This is a profession related to motorsports that the next generation doesn’t even consider as a vocation.  Awareness that this trade is withering will hopefully resonate with young artists who want to create art in the realm of motorsports. 

To see Kent Gabriel’s work, take a trip out to Portland International Raceway or go to: http://www.gabessigns.com/