Roadhouse Relics’ neon puts Austin art in a new light

Anna-Kay Reeves

The bright lights of the big city glow a little brighter at the corner of South 1st and Annie Street.

It’s here, behind the iconic “Greetings from Austin” mural, that artist Todd Sanders operates his studio and gallery. While the mural is a big draw, Sanders’ work, with something quite literally electric about it, isn’t to be outshined.

“I fell in love with typography and signage when I was in college for graphic design,” Sanders said. “I made it three years in school when I took a trip to what was supposed to be New Braunfels, but I missed my turn and ended up in Austin.”

For Sanders, this one wrong turn would turn out very right, putting him on the road to Austin and showing art in a gallery in New York City alongside the likes of Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst.

“When we came into town, I saw all these neon signs and girls with tattoos and I just felt the city,” Sanders said. “I felt that Austin weird that people talk about, and I decided to move here and make neon signs.”

Sanders did just that, quitting school to work for a signage company in Austin. He created contemporary works for a time until a retro style commission inspired him to venture out on his own and devote himself exclusively to signs built in the 1950s style.

“I advertised around town, and the business really took off,” Sanders said. “It was successful, but I still wanted to shift more into the fine art side of working with neon and get away from the commercial side. So in 2005, I stopped taking business commissions. I felt like in time I could find a market for this kind of art.”

Celina Zisman, a gallerist at the nearby South 1st Yard Dog Art, pointed out that the district offers art for a niche market.

“Austin has great resources for experiencing what’s traditionally seen as fine art with places like the Blanton,” Zisman said. “But the art that you can find in this district is a bit more down-home, a bit more accessible. And because of that I think you see a greater scope of Austinites both contributing to and admiring this art.”

Despite the district’s established reputation as a source for accessible art, Sanders said he had a few tough years eking out an income from his neon pieces without the cushion of commercial commissions. With his wife encouraging him to press on in making fine art, Sanders worked on promotion strategies, and eventually business began to boom.

“It was like starting a fire. There was just a spark at first, barely there, but then you watch it and feed it and it becomes something huge that you can’t put out,” Sanders said. “I’ve been able to make connections in this community that really pushed me forward.”

Ismael Mauricio Cavazos, fellow artist and former owner of the South 1st gallery “In a Nutshell,” agreed that despite rising costs in the area, there’s a great community of artists in South Austin.

“There’s definitely a shift going on right now just because of rising rent in the area, which has forced a lot of artists to move,” Cavazos said. “But people are getting creative about that and figuring out how to do collectives and support one another to keep the area thriving artistically.”

These days, Roadhouse Relics isn’t sweating whether to take commercial business. With celebrity clients such as Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top and Miranda Lambert, as well as clients around the world, Sanders said that these days he’s satisfied with where he is both professionally and geographically.

“California’s neat, but it’s not Texas,” Sanders said. “This, Austin, is it for me. What’s happened with my art couldn’t have happened anywhere else. I’ll never live in any other city.”