Todd Sanders is a neon pop artist who builds vintage-style neon signs out of his shop in Austin, Roadhouse Relics. We had the opportunity to interview Todd (transcribed below) and shoot some photos for Tecovas Ranch Wear as he did his thing. Todd’s a great example of what it means to Walk Taller, to not give up and to listen to that voice in your head that tells you to keep chasing your dreams. You can view and shop Todd’s work at Roadhouse Relics in Austin and at www.roadhouserelics.com.
Alright, tell us who you are and how you ended up in Austin.
I was going to school in Huntsville for graphic design and I realized in school I was not going to be able to sit in an office someday. I needed to find something to do with my life that was creative. I started painting signs in college, little ranches and coffee shops in downtown Huntsville. I really fell in love with sign painting and creating type styles but I was still kind of looking for that missing ingredient of what that might be.
My buddy and I took a road trip to New Braunfels from Huntsville and we were supposed to turn just outside of Bastrop. We weren’t paying attention and we came over the hill and we saw the Austin skyline. I said, “Man, we missed our turn.” And, you know, that ended up being the greatest missed turn in history of missed turns. It literally changed my life.
I just kind of felt the vibe of the city and the spirit of it. I saw girls with tattoos – you didn't see that in East Texas unless you were at the carnival or something and paid ticket money for it. I started noticing all the neon in Austin and we pulled up to the corner of Lamar and Enfield there's this enormous neon 3D bug on the Terminix exterminator sign and right there I said to my friend, “That that's what I'm going to do, I'm going to move here and I'm going to learn how to make neon signs.” He kind of looked at me, then back at the sign, and was like, “Um, okay?”
So you just went for it?
I did. I went back to Huntsville and hooked up my 1954 Spartan to my 1950 Chevy pickup and came to Austin. I didn't know anybody here, I had about $150 in my pocket, no leads on a job, and no idea how to make a neon sign.
I found this little place called Ion Art and they had a crazy neon sign and a little art gallery inside and they were only doing real neon signs. I said, “That that's it, that's where I want to work” and I walked inside to let them know I was ready to work there. You know, I thought they would just be so happy to hear the great news, that they just won the Todd Lottery! They said “Thanks, but we don't need any help.” I went back every day for two weeks to ask again. The neon bender would see me coming and yell, “He's back!” Finally, they gave up and ended up working there for three years. I learned everything I could about neon.
If that was what you’re after, why did you leave to do your own thing?
A few years in, a customer opening a Cajun restaurant really changed things for me. He wanted some decor pieces inside the restaurant – one was an old Jax beer neon in an art deco style, with rounded corners and exposed, weathered metal. He wanted it to look old and legit. So, as that sign took shape, it felt like I was tuned into something special. It wasn’t long after that, I decided to start a business making vintage style neon signs but for new businesses. I'm going to make a sign for a business and they're going to look like they've been around for 50 years on their first day.
So that led to this place?
Yeah, Roadhouse Relics was born in early 1995 and I built it by making these vintage style neon signs for businesses and things were going good. But from the time I was a little kid I wanted to be a fine artist and I just didn't have the confidence to do that as a career. And that voice in my head wouldn’t leave me alone but I didn’t have the guts to go for it.
One day, this girl that had just moved here from Canada came in and I sold her a little neon art piece. We hit it off and started dating. I told her, “You know, I love building neon signs for businesses but I really want to be a fine artist.” I thought she would tell me I was crazy, but she didn’t. She said, “Go for it. If that's your dream let's do it. I'll suffer through it with you. But let's just go for it.” So, I closed a successful sign company and changed the name to “Roadhouse Relics Art Studio and Gallery. And I’ve been making vintage-style, weathered neon signs as fine art since 2005. And that girl is now my wife and I proposed with a neon sign, obviously.
Did your work catch on right away?
No. It took some time for people to “get it,” you know. Is this an old sign? Is this a vintage sign store? But eventually, people started buying my pieces and putting them on their walls. Some celebrities bought pieces, Willie Nelson, Billy Gibbons, Kacey Musgraves… and that really helped get my name out there. Now I'm shipping these pieces all over the country they're going into art collections and I get to see my work on the walls next to my heroes.
I’ve had customers send me pictures of my art next to pieces by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg and for me, like, those are my heroes. I'm also grateful that I get to keep this tradition going in appreciation for work that the neon artists of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s made. They weren't considered artists, they were tradesmen. I think they deserved to be honored and I've tried to celebrate their lives in my work. I get to honor them and put food on the table for my family by making art. That’s a dream come true for me and I’m really proud of it.