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One of a kind: A conversation with Simon Thomas

Authenticity is something that many people have spent their lives trying to cultivate, with meticulous fine-tuning and self reflective improvement an everyday trial. With the adoption of new technologies, many of these hand-centric crafts are relegated to a digital paddock losing principles of practice that were once cherished and rewarded. Sign writing is one profession that felt the full brunt of the digital revolution, as laser cut letters and downloadable fonts inundated the industry and made certain mastertry near redundant. Yet, as time moves and fashions revolve, a desire for something special has re-emerged. Hand-centric crafts are now a ballooning niche, as crowds desire the slow and steady over the fast and ready. Simon Thomas is a local sign writer who has been in the industry for 35 years, standing witness to changing trends and digital disruption.

Chances are you’ve sipped a brew whilst your eyes followed the articulate lines of Simon Thomas’s work, his hand painted letter styles and creativities are an ever-popular fixture on the menu boards and walls of Wollongong’s bubbling food and beverage locales. With a collected calm that reverberates cool, Simon Thomas has been dipping his brush around town since the 1980s. Room For Horse sat down with the local artist, sign writer, the Dude look-a-like for a chat about his work, his art and himself.


H: We have been told some stories that you are not the only Simon Thomas. I feel we have to ask before we begin, are you the real Simon Thomas?

S: Yeah, yeah. I had an issue with identity theft, which is serious. I’m not joking. It really happened and I’ve had issues for about 10 years with it. Every time I get pulled over.


H: Wow, was it someone local who has done this to you?

S: Yes, he is a local. I was surfing at East Corrimal and had all of my gear and stuff at the beach. They caught the guy and he went to jail and everything but my name is connected with his because he used my address, my license. I can’t get it expunged, if that’s the word. They can’t do it. They wouldn’t do it.


H: That is terrible, have you had ongoing problems with this?

S: I’ve lost work. Yeah, I lost work because they do a ‘working with children’ check.


H: You can’t work with children now?

S: Well, I can but it’s really weird for me because when I do an interview and they’re going to do that check, like if I’m working for council, I’m going to say by the way, I had my identity stolen and just saying it’s really weird, so there’s that issue. There’s that issue with do I say something and it makes me look like a freak or do I not say and they may think I’m a freak. It’s just like that.
I’ve got a tattoo in my left arm and he has too (laughs). It’s just bad. At first, it was a joke. But now, it really stresses me because I’ve just got to move really slowly in my car, not reach for my wallet or anything. It was a bit cool at first, but now – now I’m over it. No wonder why.


H: Wow, that’s an interesting story. We’re almost sorry we asked. Now, you mentioned surfing just before, how long have you been surfing for?

S: Since I was 12.


H: Is it still a big part of your life?

S: It was up ‘til I got responsible and I started working a lot harder. I still like to get to surf but nowhere near as much. There was a time I’d be upset when I didn’t go four times a week. Now if I get four times a year, I’m happy. Kids, life, mortgage, business. You just got to get responsible at some point and I’m still waiting for that to happen.


H: (Laughs) You’re ready though, because you’re not surfing anymore?

S: Oh, yeah. But I still love it and I think it’s influenced … I think a surfer has a … I don’t know. There’s a type of person that it attracts and I think you develop a certain way. I don’t know, you’re a little more chilled.


H: How long have you been a sign writer then?

S: As soon as I left school. I left school in year 10 and I started work two weeks later. Christmas, 1980 when I started work.


H: That’s close to 35 years, why sign writing?

S: Well, I liked it because it was, at that point in time, it was all hand done, everything, the fonts you used. I hate using the word fonts because that’s really computer age. I still like to say letter styles if it was by hand… That’s what attracted me to it. Actually, I got offered a job with Dolly magazine in the art department, but I wanted to be a sign artist. That’s how I ended up in that then I lost interest when it became digital.


H: We were going to ask, hand painted is now a popular sign medium, which is great for you now. But there would have been a time when digital would have started to overtake the industry.

S: Oh yeah. I remember when I saw my first computer cut letter. I know it was produced on a machine called a Gerber in 1985. Then from that day on, probably from ’85 to ’95, everything changed in the sign industry. I worked for myself because I like old school. It was tough. I didn’t have much work and I refused to use digital.


H: Do you still refuse to use it now?

S: Occasionally. I see the advantage of it in a lot of places but in my opinion, there’s nothing like seeing something that somebody has made by hand. I think that you can see that in signage. . It just looks nice and you can see someone has spent hours working on it. Whereas the stickers, it’s fair enough it might have really good design elements to it, but it’s a little … I don’t know.


H: It can be reproduced?

S: It’s a little soulless. I think hand painted signs are a bit like slow food movement. People really appreciate it because there’s an effort and the time. There’s never two of the same.


H: Now, I remember seeing Chalk Talk on Corrimal Street when I was a kid.

S: Well, Chalk Talk was Yeedah’s. She started Chalk Talk and I went to work for her because I was doing my thing. I was making signs and one day, she was overloaded with work. She said ‘Do you want to come and do some work for us?’ I said ‘Sure. I’d love to’ because it was hand done. At that point in time, I wasn’t doing heaps of work in my own business because of the digital thing. I went and worked for Yeedah.


H: That is how you met your wife Yeedah? Did you know her before that?

S: I knew of her because she was … I used to see her around town doing a little bit of ticket work and things. Then when I went to work for her she realised that I was irresistible.


H: Well, she is only human.

S: She’s only human. (Laughter)

Untitled design (3)

Clockwise from Top Left: Simon painting his Port Kembla storefront. A tar and oil painting. 50-foot woman homage in the Living Room on Keira St.


H: You have come a long way since then, when did you move to the Port Kembla location?

S: Four and a half years ago now. Something like that. The reason we moved out here was we used to have the top floor at the Oxford Hotel in town. When that went into receivership, we quickly had to find somewhere to move. Yeedah said ‘I might have a look out here.’


H: You were saying before that it really kind of started to influence your work, especially your personal works.

S: Yeah, it is because it’s like a little, I don’t know. It’s a little ghost town in the middle of an industry. … It’s a little spot in the middle of this huge industrial area and you can’t help but love it. I drive home in the evenings and I come over the hill, and it’s dark and there’s fire coming out of the chimneys. I can’t help but be inspired.


H: Yeah. Port Kembla has a lot of character, doesn’t it?

S: Yes and history! That’s why my parents immigrated here, because my dad went to work there. It’s always been part of my life. Thousands of immigrants did.


H: Would you say that industrial presence out here has influenced your use of tar as a medium?

S: Yeah. Tar is beautiful .. And it just suits. It suits the style of my painting, particularly with the industry because it’s dirty. It’s a by-product of other things and it just suits.


H: The landscape series you did all had this influence?

S: Yeah, nearly all industrial, bar a couple. I did a few of that are actually natural landscapes as well, but I think the medium that I used isn’t quite as good for that kind of thing. Tar just gives off dirty, thick, stinking, manufactured vibe.


H: It’s very interesting. So, you have murals in bars, cafes and businesses all over Wollongong. When did you start doing this?

S: I started that probably mid ‘90s. I did a job for the ABC and for a kid show. I think it was called Fang Hall. It was all about these dogs and one of the dogs was in a wheelchair and they lived in this house. I had to carve these huge dogs that were about 10 feet tall and polystyrene and they were the posts for the house.
Anyway, I did that job and then I did some more work on the set and people started to see that I did that kind of thing. I can’t really remember where my first mural was in town, but I’ve done heaps since all over the place.


H: Is this an aspect of your job you enjoy?

 S: Yeah, I like … Scenic art is the technical term for it. I don’t build them but I make them look like whatever they’ve got to look like, and it’s really good work. Interesting work, but it’s really pressured.


H: Challenging?

S: It’s challenging because you turn up and you have to make it look like whatever it’s going to look like on the spot in the morning. There’s always a time issue because it might be in a studio and studio time is expensive. You’re being hammered to produce.


H: Do you have to research different techniques to get certain effects, such as a rusty look?

S: That’s from working with other guys. Yeah. It’s like most things. You work with someone that’s more experienced than you. I’m a bit of a sponge. For example, I worked on the Underbelly series and I was working with guys that have come out from England that had worked on the Harry Potter films. There’s nothing they don’t know about weird things for getting it right. Some of these guys were 70 years old and they just …


H: What did you do for Underbelly?

S: Funnily enough, I spent most of my time I was there in the brothel, which was part of the larger set. I used to ring Yeedah and say “I’m back in the brothel”, and she’d go “get it done, I’m over that joke”.
It had beautiful hand printed wallpapers. All these sets were in a house in Fairfield and it looked beautiful and we trashed it all to make it look like that the house had been lived in for 20 years. We put stains everywhere and had fake floors with the fake liner, and we painted individual mosaic tiles on the floor. We made it look as if you’re exactly in these old homes.

H: Amazing. You spoke about working with other guys and learning, what other artists have influenced you development as an artist?

S: As far as being an influence in my other work, probably my favourite artist, current, I’ve got two artists that I like. I like Ben Quilty I think he’s one of the premieres, in my opinion. I really like his work and I love his style. I also like a painter called Frank Albach.

Could be, might be German, I’m not sure – Albach. He’s a real contemporary painter and he paints for eight hours a day, six days a week. He’s really, really rigid and he paints a woman all the time.

He just numbers them. I love his paintings, and he puts that much paint on them that at night when they’re hanging on galleries they have to flip them so the paint drips back down. They flip them back around in the day. He’s really heavy handed. I tend to be a bit heavy handed.

I like that sort of thing. That’s why I like Ben Quilty, he layers it on with a caulking gun. Yeah, he’s a dude.


H: Incredible. Coming back to signs, who taught you to sign write?

S: I did my trade with, at the time it was called De maagd’s Signs and he was a self-taught sign writer and I learned a bit at tafe. Peter, that was his name. You know what, because I worked by myself, it’s quite solitary, so a lot of the stuff I just learned on my own. I’m just aware of other things around. I think I’ve influenced a lot of sign artists to be honest.


H: I would have to agree. There has been this real resurgence in Wollongong with hand painted and so you have murals in cafes everywhere. Do you think people seeing your stuff is the best advertisement for you?

S: The only advertising we do. Yeah, I put my name on the corner and the phone rings.

Some of Simon's lettering, his boots and Big Lebowski-esque profile.

Some of Simon’s lettering, his boots and Big Lebowski-esque profile.

H: Would you say you have a process for things like that?

S: There’s formula with certain types of things but not everything. I do have a process and often it will be conversation with the client to make sure that what I’m thinking is what they’re thinking because often what I’ve got in my head is just not what they have. The hardest part is getting that nod before you start.


H: Do you ever just do whatever you want?

S: Yeah, occasionally. I did at Lower East. Margo wanted a cherry blossom, and when they came in I’d done that original one with the tree and the city and school and all that stuff. She still laughs. I knew I could get away with it. It’s when people just say go for it, but that doesn’t often happen.

At the Living Room on Keira Street, They basically said ‘Look, just do something a bit cool’ and that was particular. Yeah, that was homage to Attack Of The 50-foot Woman, that old film.


H: How did that come about? Did the film just pop up in your thoughts?

S: Yeah, but I actually spend time keeping up, being current. Okay, so I keep a really close eye, say via Instagram and things like that, what’s happening in the world as far as style goes because you get to an age where you just can’t walk in to a place and think you’re cool. Do you know what I mean?

You just can’t do it and it’s funny to say this but the older you get, sometimes the less people think you know what’s going on. Do you know what I mean? You know they just think ‘Oh, I’ll do it before they know’. That creeps into my mind occasionally now, not that often.


H: What kind of work are you doing at the moment?

S: I’m still falling into industry, my personal work is going down that road still but business-wise, I’m doing a lot of work for Miranda; Westfield at the moment. We’re halfway through a job at the university…


H: Could you tell us about what you’re doing at Miranda?

S: Yeah. It finally kind of connects to what we’re talking about before because they’ve gone for this handmade, hand painted art in the market place now. They’ve tracked us down on Instagram or something, and we’ve got all of that stuff. They wanted that look. They did some market research and said it slows people down when they shop.


H: That’s awesome. So, we’re lucky enough to catch up some mornings at Lower East and you always seem happy Simon. Do you think you’ve found a good balance in life?

S: Family and work is balanced because of my nature, I need to have a pretty regimented work ethic because I would tend to not work as hard, I think, if I didn’t. I have to make myself. I’m quite, what’s the word, compulsive with what I need to do. I’ll have a coffee every morning, I’ve got an hour or so. Then I’m ready for work and then I just go all day. I’m a creature of habit and I’ve got to be like that otherwise…


H: You really enjoy your coffee don’t you?

S: A lot.

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