Manning Signs artist adds unique flair to Austin businesses

Andrew Manning has spent some time working on Rainey Street in the last few months. 

Recently, the owner and chief artist at Manning Signs, took on a weeks-long project hand-painting striping murals across nine floors in a parking garage adjacent to a high-rise. Nine floors, 20 lines, each one 40 feet in length, every one of them hand-pulled by Manning and his small team.  Prefab Outdoor Rooms

Manning Signs artist adds unique flair to Austin businesses

And then, of course, it’s Rainey Street. Working at a construction site in the district that specializes in construction sites can be its own special kind of nightmare. Parking on the cursed street, lugging materials into a work zone, finding lockboxes, all while juggling a project that requires a steady hand and the utmost precision. Every brush stroke needs to be perfect, and for a job this big, the client will want perfection. 

Another project this spring was practically next door, and it took all of 30 minutes. After receiving a text from Little Brother owner Matt Bolick one morning with a special request for the door of his single bathroom at Rainey Street bar-slash-coffee-shop-slash-punk-venue. Bolick didn’t give any direction on font or sizing. Hell, he wasn’t even at the bar that day. Manning showed up a couple hours later with his brush and some paints, free-handing four simple words on the door.

It now reads, simply, in perfectly imperfect white lettering: “GUESTS ONLY” and directly below, “no poops.”

The sign says it all.

This sort of variety in work represents the dichotomy of Manning’s professional career, one that has ascended to the point that one can barely walk down an Austin street without bumping into a window or sandwich board or wooden sign that hasn’t come from his hand. Yeti? Manning. Rambler? Manning. Anything Larry McGuire decides to open? Manning, Manning, Manning. 

The laconic, versatile purveyor of the craft still finds time for the small stuff, but 12 years into his career as a sign painter, Andrew Manning is poised to paint the town — the state, the Southwest, the country — one steady-handed stroke at a time.

Manning also creates gold-leaf signs for businesses, like East Austin's Communion Tattoo.

Manning’s first-ever hand-painted piece, a sign made for local tattooer and friend Jeremy Cook, was a rip-off. 

Reading, simply “Electric Tattooing,” it directly referenced the panel shape and lettering of a similar one made by his mentor, longtime Austin sign painter Gary Martin, who even helped paint the piece with Manning.

It was a chance meeting. Manning was an artist but unfocused and unsure of how one made a living as one. A friend in art school in the Bay Area, back home on break from school, told Manning that he had an apprenticeship as a sign painter and told him to look up Martin. 

For 30 years at that point, Martin was Manning before Manning. Seemingly every bold and bright hand-painted sign around town — Torchy’s, Rock of Ages Tattoo, Esther’s Follies — was one of his. Martin gracefully let Manning hang around the shop, taught him some tricks, and recommended books on the craft.

Most invaluable, perhaps, was Martin’s demonstration of how an artist survives in a growing metropolis like Austin, one that had transformed immeasurably since Martin first picked up a brush — and one that would continue as Manning’s career developed.

“If Gary wasn’t doing what he was doing, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing,” Manning says. “I’d be working in a restaurant or something.”

"I feel really lucky," Manning says, of his company's ability to not only survive the pandemic, but to have grown so immensely during it.

That’s exactly what Manning was doing as he learned the craft. While he picked up jobs here and there painting signs for friends and friends-of-friends, he worked for a screenprinting business called SW8SHOP and at Crazy Ricky’s, an erstwhile burger truck in the Hotel Vegas backyard. He’d paint signs in his house or garage but didn’t see a career in it at first.

“I was also partying a lot in my 20s,” he says, “so my drive for taking a trade seriously kind of wasn't there.”

That's until about six years ago when he took stock of his life. His time was split down the middle, half of his working hours at the screen-printing shop and the other half painting signs. But there was stark inequality when it came to his income: 90% of it was coming from sign painting. Soon after he shut down the garage studio, quit his day job, and thrust himself completely into the sign painting business. 

Manning says that business grew slowly, to the point where he was the company's sole employee until about two years ago. Manning Signs now has five employees, including Manning. 

When I ask him how he managed to grow his business during a global pandemic, one that hit the service industry particularly hard, he takes a breath. Manning describes that sweating through masks and doing temperature checks onsite were arduous but necessary tasks. 

"I feel really lucky," he says, of his expanding empire. The businesses he had relationships with wound up growing despite the pandemic, which enabled Manning Signs to take off. He takes a beat. "But, yeah, we just made it work."

Manning, who at first didn't understand how he could make a living as an artist, now does regular commissions for enormous brands.

For someone who lives and breathes bold artwork, sometimes lifting high above the sky on a crane to finish a piece, Manning is understated in person. Tall, with long, jet-black hair and a mustache, Manning is covered in tattoos. Dressed in a wrinkled Manning Signs pocket tee and shorts on the day I visit his studio, he looks like he’d slot right in at the corner of the bar at Yellow Jacket Social Club. (Manning has painted signs for the East Austin dive, one that he has indeed frequented.)

Talking with Manning about the time-honed craft, trends in art, and those very tattoos, though, Manning is rather soft-spoken, brief-yet-thoughtful in every answer he provides.

His style? "Simple and classic."

Other sign painters he likes?

"My biggest inspiration and number one-sign painter is Gary Martin."

Sign painting as a cultural trend?

"I think that its popularity has the potential to increase or decrease a little bit or a lot over time."

Manning's outgrew his home workshop about six years ago, now working out of a colorful space in southeast Austin.

Manning is not just being cagey. He just likes what he like and believes what he believes. His style, his flair doesn't pour from his mouth; it flows from his brush.

“He’s so low-key,” Bolick says, the Little Brother owner who recently hired Manning to do signs at Bummer Burrito, the food truck that recently, ironically replaced the old Crazy Ricky’s trailer at Hotel Vegas. “He shoots you straight, shows up, and crushes it every time.”

Aside from the “No Poops” sign and some artwork at Bummer Burrito, Manning painted the dog-in-a-Unambomber-costume logo on the door at Little Brother in a pinch. Bolick had previously used longtime Austin sign painter Joe Swec, a close friend and frequent collaborator when the busy artist was available, but Swec had slowed down his commissions recently when the restaurateur needed a logo painted. On a recommendation, he tried Manning, who said he could show up that same morning. After a quick back-and-forth on colors, which Manning left up to the proprietor, a cartoon picture of Bolick’s dog dressed as the infamous terrorist permanently adorned the space before noon.

“It was the fastest sign situation I've ever come in contact with,” Bolick laughs.

Manning’s ability to pivot quickly and take on multiple projects — he says his shop is usually working on between 10-20 projects at a time — has made him a favorite with McGuire Moorman Lambert, the expansive hospitality group with a huge presence in Austin, plus properties in New Orleans and Aspen.

Manning has become a big part of MML's recent openings, working on restaurants across Austin and in Aspen, Colorado.

MML Art Director Rachel Tieleman says she worked with Manning on one project and never looked back. He has now painted signs and windows at Lou’s Barton Springs, Pecan Square Cafe, Joann’s Fine Foods, and a number of other MML restaurants.

“The best thing about working with Andrew is he has zero ego,” she says. “No matter what we try, Andrew is going to be down to do it, and it is going to look great. And if it doesn't look great, he's always down to touch it up or completely try something new.”

Manning even started hand-painting and screenprinting those ubiquitous QR codes that arrived in every restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic. It's surely more expensive than just printing a code on card stock and calling it a day. Tieleman and Bolick both acknowledge that a hand-painted sign or window or yes, QR code is a luxury they’ll gladly pay, even if the average customer doesn’t notice the difference.

“At the end of the day we're willing to front the bill for it to feel right,” Bolick says. “But just a sticker? You can make a sticker — I can make a sticker. But we definitely can't f***ing do that.”

MML even footed the bill to fly Manning out to Aspen to paint signs for Las Montañas, the group’s Mexican restaurant in the resort town. Tieleman says there wasn’t a question about spending extra to get Manning to Aspen rather than hiring a Colorado-based artist.

Tieleman has a simple answer: "I knew 100% that Andrew would get the job done right."

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Sometimes the work trips are a little closer to home.

Earlier this year, Manning's work took him to San Antonio, where he painted the logo for beer garden Camp 1604 on a shipping container. He says he loves working in the city and has a few upcoming restaurant projects in San Antonio.

Manning donated the refresh of the iconic Sixth Street mural, which was faded and covered in graffiti.

Eighteen months ago, Manning began work on his largest, least commercially successful project yet. The colorful mural at I-35 and Sixth Street that announced to the world that yes, music exists here, had faded and was covered in graffiti. Manning reached out to Sanctuary, the company that painted it, and offered to refresh the piece. For a few weeks, Manning and his team of four did a subtle redesign, adding fresh paint and some new lettering styles to the iconic mural, completely for free.

Manning says he did it simply because he wanted to give the mural life again, and he figured he'd get some exposure and maybe drum up some business when it was done. Even as Manning Signs expands to be one of the most in-demand sign painting shops in the city, he has designs on working on more murals, larger pieces, and working with more clients on original designs that come from his shop.

"Instead of, on the smaller end, painting a couple of bathroom doors and that being the full scope of the project, maybe doing all of the signage in a restaurant: exterior and interior glass, logos, menus," he says.

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As we part, following a tour of his workshop, which is plastered with dozens of in-progress, completed, disused, vintage, and "just for fun" signs that Manning has either painted or collected, I find difficulty in extracting the meaning of sign painting from the artist. It's this age-old, timeless craft, one that utilizes technology in the early stages but requires just the human body at the culmination. At the end of the day, when it really counts, it's just Manning and the brush, sweeping steadily in the palm of his hand.

During the course of our conversation, he has mentioned that building a business and seeing his work across the city and beyond are both necessary and alluring rewards for his hard work. When I ask him what he loves about sign painting as a craft, he's characteristically plainspoken.

"I think that painted letters are beautiful. I love to look at them," he says. "I like to make a letter with a brush."

Manning Signs artist adds unique flair to Austin businesses

Sandwich Panel Roof Chris O'Connell covers all things Austin. He can be found @theechrisoc.