Japhy Witte, is the Sign Savant whose work adorns a large number of businesses in the West Seattle Junction. Working with everything from house paint to spray paint Witte (sometimes with his collaborator Zach Rockstad) creates his signs and paintings often spontaneously, working out sizes and colors as he paints.
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SLIDESHOW: The Sign Savant breathes life into his craft
A savant is defined as a person of great knowledge, but the knowledge Japhy Witte has is focused on what he thinks is the "dying craft' of sign painting.
Known in the area as the "Sign Savant" Witte embodies the spirit of an artist. His clothing is almost an impressionist painting itself in every imaginable color of drips and dabs from many of the signs he's created.
Witte's sign and window painting is so familiar in the West Seattle Junction that he could be said to be responsible for much of the character of the business district.
He is the artist behind the signage at Blue Willow Catering, Shadowland, Red Cup Espresso, the Senior Center, West Seattle Coins, Talarico's, Knows Perfume and this month the windows at Elliot Bay Brew Pub and Puerto Vallarta Restaurant. One of his clients, Eduardo Morales owner of Puerto Vallarta said, "He's an amazing man and the price that he charges is awesome. He does his work and he doesn't ask for money up front."
Born in 1977 in Iowa, Witte grew up in a home full of art. His mother and father both demonstrated artistic ability with his dad doing leather crafting and his mom teaching children, at one point instructing them in art out of the family home. Witte himself has virtually no formal training but is now so practiced that he can emulate most styles of art, preferring however the broad styles that sign and window painting usually requires.
His approach to painting something commercial is as much social and verbal as it is artistic. When talking to a client Witte likes to, "get a feel for their personality, have them tell me about the space and what the overall feel is, then depending on what they want go from there. It's people stuff," he concluded.
Despite the ready availability of computers literally everywhere, Witte prefers a more tactile approach. He will sometimes complete a couple of preliminary sketches, to work out the design elements and to show clients for approval, though like most artists he prefers clients that give him more free reign. Then, sometimes with an assistant he begins painting, often creating the idea for the final image as he paints. "I like to look at it and get a feel for it and then I know that the outcome can happen." he said.
He feels that sign and window painting however is in danger of disappearing. "It's the age we've gone into so quickly with computer elements being more and more the mainstay of how everything functions. One definite fallback is that it's being use to make everything a little bit too simple. to immediate (…) Immediate gratification. But it falls short on so many levels." He has email and sometimes looks at a computer but is so busy working in the real world he doesn't really have time. He has a Facebook page but no web site.
While his normal work often draws praise and comments, "The project that got the most commentary is a group wall on Capitol Hill for the Sound Transit station there". Witte did not do the design itself.
It's a mural self-portrait of artist Baso Fibonacci, with wildly designed multi colored owls and a profile of Fibonacci's face along a wall that extends from the corner of E. John Street to the first entrance gate on 10th Avenue. Witte, and his collaborator Zach Rochman did the physical painting, often with spray paint with supplies coming from Art Primo Paint Suppliers.
Witte can and does paint interior murals in homes, emulating other artists styles but his own artistic hero is not someone whose work you'll find in a museum.
He likes the painting work done by Vince Ryland who lives and works in Olympia. "It's about his craft, his cycles and systems and making it run for him," Witte said, "He's a pretty off the fly guy and I really appreciate the way he runs around and gets a lot of stuff done all the time." Witte doesn't have any favorite fine artists. "I like pieces, I don't know if I like people for that," he said, "I talk about sign painters because that's what I like."
You can reach Japhy at Japhywitte@gmail.com or by phone at 206 331-9612.
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