Makers of Tomorrow: Alex Kurakake

This grassroots handpainter's talent matches his massive Instagram following.
Makers of Tomorrow: Alex Kurakake

Alex Kurakake

Age: 26

Job: Owner, Smart Alex Signs (Huntington Beach, CA)

After work: Kurakake spends time with his three children – particularly, watching movies and reading with them before bedtime – and practices Muay Thai.

Quote to know: “I don’t get too wrapped up in making a huge art piece of a sign, even though some of them become that. I try to help the business. If it’s a barbershop, I want to emphasize ‘barber’ so that people can drive by and see ‘barber.’ To me, that’s making a good sign.”

How did a former graffiti artist and pizza-place employee wind up as an in-demand Los Angeles-area signpainter with nearly 20,000 Instagram followers? Influential schooling, a lot of hard work, and a preternatural gift for producing quality handpainted signs. After he graduated high school, Kurakake was working at a pizza joint to support his young daughter when a friend informed him about the Sign Graphics program at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, a community college near downtown L.A. After visiting the class and meeting his future instructor, Ralph “Doc” Guthrie, Kurakake was hooked. “I fell in love with that class,” he said. “I was excited to go back every day.”

The first signpainting skill Kurakake could take into the real world and make money with was window splashing. “I was working at a pizza place for $8 an hour. Doc had told us that a student [signpainting] rate was $25 an hour. That was really good money,” Kurakake said. “I became dedicated. I knew I wanted my own business eventually.” Kurakake graduated and went door-to-door to spread the word about Smart Alex Signs. He quickly grasped the hard truth about starting a grassroots business. “I was shut down a lot. It was very discouraging,” Kurakake said. “There were a handful times that I thought, ‘This isn’t going to work.’” Perseverance won out, and Kurakake’s customers told him to start using Instagram to promote his work. Kurakake isn’t much for technology – there is no Smart Alex Signs website – but his profile exploded after a time-lapse video displayed Kurakake’s start-to-finish work on a project. “I was able to see the importance in that,” he said, “and now Instagram is a tool for me and a way to reach people.”

In 2015, Kurakake attended the Letterheads’ 40th Anniversary meeting at the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati. There, he was chosen by Mark Oatis, a founding member of the Letterheads, to be the final signpainter to possess (even if only for that day) a 90-year-old mahl stick before it went into the Sign Museum. “That was a big highlight of my career,” Kurakake said. “Out of all the people … it could have been anybody.” Kurakake is unafraid to share his wisdom with anyone who inquires, remembering the advice, materials and equipment he obtained from his signpainting mentors. “I’m grateful for that. I always think about passing [knowledge] on,” he said. “I don’t have to wait until I’m 70.”

Signs of the Times January 2020

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