By Daniel Paiz
In case you thought Cypher Local articles weren’t a thing anymore, you were sadly mistaken. In this third edition of Cypher Local, I’m speaking with an institution of art and Hip-Hop within the city of Denver. This guy has repurposed street signs into works of art.
Dan Ericson, better known as Dunn The Street Sign Artist has an extremely versatile gallery of art pieces. From Princess Leia to Prince and Bruce Lee to Guru, there’s somebody for everyone to admire and collect. To get a better idea of how this artist operates, let’s jump into his interview below.
Learning about The Signtologist
Cypher Sessions (CS): So I’ve read about how you came to start using street signs as your canvas. What’s made you stick with the street sign as your medium?
DUNN: I really enjoyed the exploration and learning that came with using street signs. There was no right or wrong way to create, just experimentation. After studying art in a school setting for many years, this medium was a refreshing change of pace. I think that’s why I gravitated towards it and stuck with it as my medium.
CS: Figuring out your lane is so vital, that’s awesome. Where did you used to get street signs and is that the way you still get them today, or is there some kind of donation/city grant thing going on now?
DUNN: There have been multiple, I’m always changing sources over the past 20 years. Needless to say became a reoccurring hurdle in my practice. So, last year I decided to go straight to the source and I now work at a sign shop in my neighborhood.
CS: That makes sense, I was wondering how you got around that issue. So what inspired you to begin creating art, and what single moment made you realize it was to be your career?
DUNN: Art has always been my outlet it’s what keeps me grounded and balanced. I was introduced to art at a young age by my mother and instantly fell in love with it. I always wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember. As far as a full time art career I’m still working on that piece of the puzzle.
Art in the time of COVID
Everyone has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the entertainment and art world were hit hard. It’ll be interesting to hear how one moves forward with so many uncertainties facing creatives.
CS: It’s great to hear you started young! You’ve created a LOT of pieces of art. For the bigger artists (Rakim, Pharrell, etc.) do you create with the goal of the featured artist seeing the work in person, or you’re just creating and if it happens, it happens?
DUNN: A little of both. When I was starting out it became a game to see if I could get my art in front of whoever was coming through town. It is always an exhilarating process that never gets old. Over time, this became less of a focus as my art became more accepted by galleries and eventually museums.
CS: That’s dope! Now how have you adjusted to creating art in the current COVID-19 climate? Have the protests against police brutality impacted your artwork?
DUNN: I just had my first pandemic art show on First Friday in August. Things are different with the distancing and limited venue capacity. I will be able to navigate these hurdles over time. All events and plans I had for this summer like most people’s have been canceled.
The brutality and riots have sparked the same emotions I felt when I painted Trayvon Martin on a Do Not Enter sign after he was tragically killed. With how the world is divided lately it made me think about creating impactful work during these times. So I do what I have always done, which is use my craft as an outlet and work through these questions and problems.
I stream DJs at night and work alone in my home studio, trying out new ideas and allowing my creativity to flow and be my voice.
CS: Having a cathartic form of expression to convey what one is feeling os really important.
Learning about the process
CS: What’s your process when starting on a new art piece? How do you mold/craft the sign into the finished images we see?
DUNN: I sometime choose a sign with a subject in mind. Other times I pick signs at random depending on what I have on hand. I clean, strip and sometimes have to add reflective scraps to a sign before I can start. Everything typically starts out with a Sharpie outline.
But even that process has been changing as I’ve starting using more digital tools recently. Once the outline is complete I fill it with either paint and/or reflective sheeting. Pieces can take anywhere from a few hours to a couple days or weeks for completion. I’m lately trying to have multiple pieces going at one time so I can bounce around creatively. I’ve been working with layering & collaging more types of media into my most recent works.
DUNN: Digitally I can now take a sketch to a filled outline and then pair it up with any sign in a digital library. Having access to the tools and resources of a sign shop has really opened up a lot of new possibilities. All this is helping me streamline my process and enable future mass production of my work.
I love that after 20 years I’m still learning and experimenting with this medium. Some processes have stayed the same while others have changed drastically.
CS: Always learning is so important to keeping things fresh creatively, love to hear it. Who has mentored you, influenced you, and taught you some of the skills that you still practice today?
DUNN: Watching all my artist friends has always been very insightful. I was enamored by Justin Bua’s style in art school and it’s still surreal to me that I have shown work along side his in my career. I reached out to other artists using signs early on and met Boris Bally.; he opened my eyes on how to use recycled signs to create fine art and a successful business.
I learned a lot about professionally showing & presenting myself and my work from my longtime Denver curator and friend Eric Matelski. I have loved watching the careers of my artists colleagues like Thomas “Detour” Evans, Bunky EchoHawk, Pat Milbery and Phil “SikeStyle” Schafer take off and soar.
My connections to all these people keep me inspired and hungry to keep creating.
Advice for those who create
Being a creative is a tough path. There are a few things that DUNN knows firsthand are required if you want to keep creating and living off of it.
CS: Hungry after 20 years? That’s love for your craft, no doubt! From your career so far, what advice do you have for artists starting out on their respective medium?
DUNN: Be prepared to fail and hear NO.
Learn to deal with criticism and bounce back. Figure out your lane and focus on improving your practice and skills. Be flexible and able to pivot, and always have a back up plan. Enjoy the process and the journey. If you lose your way, find the origin point of when you first fell in love with art, and go right back to that for a creative reset.
CS: Resiliency is the name of the game. When not creating artwork, what are you doing to relax, enjoy, and grow outside of the art world?
DUNN: Spending time with the family. Baseball, video games and art with my oldest Omen. Music class and playing with my youngest Noah. Time with and without the kids with my amazing wife Gigi.
CS: Sounds like a great way to refuel. Who do you still want to create artwork of and/or what venues do you still want to see your artwork hanging in?
DUNN: I will keep creating artwork of people I admire and respect. I’ve attained every goal I set early on for myself and my artwork. I’m currently reevaluating that list and dreaming bigger now.
I would like to explore more public art. I’m also interested in adding more museums to my resume. Having my own sign shop I think is a great future goal to reach for. Another would be to have art be the catalyst for my family to travel the world.
CS: Travelling thanks to work, that’s my goal too! Alright, before I let you go, where can people find you on social media?
Thank you for the opportunity let me know if you need anything else?
That was a lot of dope information from the man Black Thought of The Roots originally called “The Signtologist”! All of the artwork, all of the sound advice; it’s definitely increased my resiliency, and hopefully yours as well. If you didn’t already, follow this man above. Thanks to DUNN for agreeing to this interview, and thank all of you for reading. Until the next edition of Cypher Local, be safe and work on those dreams. Peace!