By Kelli Samson
We take them for granted, but signs are incredibly important. They invite us in or keep us out. A sign can tell us a lot about a business owner or the wares and services inside: playful or practical, fancy or funky.
How many times have you really taken a look at the sign of a local business and wondered about the artist?
A few years ago, I was jolted into curiosity about the signage in Olympia was the gorgeous, colorful sign painted on the window of the hair salon Snip, located on Fourth Avenue downtown. I began to inquire around town about the artist.
I learned that the work I was admiring was created by none-other than the Seattle-born, Ira Coyne, son of an art teacher.
After spending an evening with him and lots of other locals at the downtown Olympia branch of the Timberland Regional Library last month, my drive home through downtown and up the west side sparkled for me in a whole new way.
As I left the library for home, the sign for Drees – with its shiny letters and simple, bold design – jumped out at me because now I recognized the work. Could it have been made by Coyne’s friend and fellow local sign maker, John Hannukaine?
As it turns out, I am a good student: the sign was, indeed, made by Hannukaine from hand-cut letters covered in gold leaf.
Just when I thought I knew everything about my community, an evening listening to Coyne share his inspirations via a very entertaining slide show convinced me that there are still things to be illuminated.
So much artistic history abounds in the letters marking our favorite haunts, new and old, across our community. Coyne taught me to see with new eyes.
Before meeting him and learning about his passion for signage, I never thought about the people behind the letters. I never really considered old signs as part of Americana or important parts of our community history.
Coyne does. He collects hand-painted signs and displays them around his Olympia studio.
“I really appreciate old things,” he says.
Coyne first came to Olympia in 1997 to attend The Evergreen State College. While in Minneapolis on what he calls “a leave of absence” from college, he was introduced to sign painting by Phil Vandervaart.
Coyne connected with local sign maker Vince Ryland in 2007. “I have been learning the traditions of the sign painting trade from him ever since,” he adds.
At the library, Coyne shared his own critique on local signage. He tries to learn from every sign he sees. “What really drives me to make signs is to do better, or at least to try.”
Sign making connects him to our community. While he is out painting in his white Converse sneakers and paint-spattered jeans, he is watching the tides of our community ebb and flow.
There are some doors of downtown businesses that Coyne has painted up to four times as businesses fail and new ones have begun. Though it is painful to scrape off one’s own hard work, “I don’t feel like I own anything that I make. When I’m done, it’s theirs,” he explains.
He knows which buildings are in good locations for success, which landlords maintain their property, and he is a voice for getting Olympians to come downtown.
“I am driven by respecting my community and my craft,” reflects Coyne.
The work he has done for The Reef, the downtown haven of hip and epicenter of classic diner-style food, is his favorite. When asked about a sign he would love to paint, Coyne expresses his desire to create something for the state that would remain on the Capitol Campus.
“My goal is to be permanent in Olympia, much like the Sherwood Press,” he adds.
For now, Coyne is content making and painting signs, indulging his hobby of photographing other sign painters’ paint kits and studios, and having fun.
“A lot of what I do in life is about fun,” he states.
If you have left your home and gone anywhere in Olympia, chances are you have already seen Coyne’s artistry. You can find his work at places like the West Olympia Food Coop, Vic’s Pizzeria, Matter! Gallery, Olympia Supply, the mural at Percival Landing, and Lucky Lunchbox, to name a few. He is also part of the recent film “Sign Painters,” which premiered at the Smithsonian Museum.
For a complete photo gallery of his work, you can visit his website at iracoyne.com.