More Than Creative
Today, Letterfly creates one-of-a-kind pinstripe designs, hand painted pictorial images and hand lettering that transform motorcycles, hot rods and even naked aircraft into rolling masterpieces that stand out, get noticed and receive nods of approval wherever they go.
For a period of twenty years Letterfly was the top producer of high-quality airbrushed murals seen on the outsides of luxury motor homes. Wildlife and animal depictions provided the mainstay for these works. In addition to paintwork on the exteriors of motorhomes, the artist also produces Trompe L’oeil murals found in homes, oil paintings on canvas and high-quality custom paint on all types of vehicles.
Starting as an apprentice in the Sign and Design trade in the seventies, his appetite for unusual activities led him to many sensational projects. A skilled painter, he has designed and painted large wall graphics and theater sets, themed interior and exterior murals in amusement parks and restaurants, crafted delicate Gold Leaf window treatments and the gilding and decoration on Fire Trucks. A true Renaissance man, he has a passion for the Victorian embellishments of an era gone by. This fondness clearly shows up in his “themed” work. What is truly unusual about this artist is that he is equally adept with paint brushes or an airbrush. The artist annually teaches a class about all aspects of custom painting and presents informative and entertaining speeches and seminars on a variety of subjects to interested civic groups and curious aficionados. For career highlights, awards, and exihbitions, click this link.
The 1976 VW Bus
A unique piece of Americana for future generations to enjoy.
At one time, hand-painted signs and vehicle décor were the only option. The colorful paint job on this automobile is only part of the story.
Today, with the computer-generated output satisfying the mainstream, hand-painted artwork is rare. This vehicle was painted and used during the hey-day of the signpainter and remains a showcase of traditional hand-painted art. Among the examples in the paint job are airbrush pictorial painting, old-school sign lettering, pinstriping and gold leaf gilding. Although painted many years ago all the artwork is pristine. The art is protected with high-quality urethane clear coat.
This old bus is aptly nicknamed “GulliVWer,” due to the extensive travel that occurred over the years. GulliVWer is now getting the much-deserved rest in the barn at my home. I am an artist and worked out of this 1976 bus for three decades. Now, embracing my mortality, I am thinking of generations to come. I enjoy the idea of contributing to posterity and keeping the legacy of hand painted art alive. This way future generations will see first-hand all the hand painted artwork on this vehicle. I seek a permanent situation for this bus in a museum along with photo portfolios of my work and hand-painted examples of the painting trade. This collection will be a significant link to our past. I seek a fair appraised value and only a permanent situation for my beloved companion and these artifacts.
GulliVWer would make a great candidate for inclusion at the American Sign Museum, the Henry Ford Museum, the Smithsonian, or any other apropos place that honors interesting roots and desires to be a sensational link to a trade that has all-but-disappeared from the mainstream. Pause for a moment, slip back in time. Consider how the world was at one time, not too long ago, when hand painting took place.
The traveling sign painter thrived in this country up until a few decades ago. Rural areas that did not have a full-time sign shop were serviced by these roving lettering artists (similar to the concept of the circuit preacher) and were famous for being productive with a bare minimum of supplies. They were interesting characters in an equally fascinating and vast trade. The slang for these intriguing purveyors of signwork was “snapper” due to the economy utilized in the production of hand painted signs. Not even needing a yardstick – a piece of chalk and a length of string was all it took to snap a straight guide line on virtually anything. These colorful and creative souls thrived wherever they wandered as makers of signs. I discovered and admired this concept as a youth when I sought creative outlet for my painting talents. I turned this tendency into reason for adventure.
My discovery of the iconic VW bus as the perfect conveyance to assist with these ambitions occurred in the early seventies. Economy and simplicity combined with a spacious interior. These lent themselves as the perfect conveyance for a variety of purposes. Not only did I have a place to store my painting supplies but I had ample living space for myself and my dog
Later, after having sown wild oats and serving as an apprentice at two sign shops, I assumed the more mature duties of the traditional sign man. I found the vehicle ideally suited for this new profession and the variety of tasks in the sign making business became my primary focus. As a sign painter, I had the ability to transport a 4×8 sign, ladders, and work plank. The interior had storage space for a complete set of paints, a drawing surface to make paper patterns, and an air compressor for airbrush work.
The microbus remained my vehicle of choice for my entire career. Throughout my career, each subsequent bus became more efficient as I matured as a sign man. Obsessed with efficiency, I racked the interior of this bus with a layout for supplies to provide maximum effectiveness. Storage trays for my brushes were salvaged from the candy apple merchant I served on the fairgrounds. They became the perfect drawers for items repeatedly used – pencils, pounce wheels, charcoal sticks and chalk socks, lettering quills, flats, fitches, pinstriping brushes, solvents and little cans of paint – now all at my fingertips. An on-board air compressor made possible airbrushing and spray tasks on any location. A drawing surface replaced the bunk of yesteryear and I had a place to unroll large pieces of paper to make perforated patterns.
Over the years this van assisted me with many creative endeavors that included the festive sign work and imagery on the fairgrounds, glass gilding on business office doors, signwork of all kinds, decorative store fronts, racecar lettering on location, fire engine décor, interior murals and truck signs of all sizes. I had the ability to haul the signs I fabricated and everything needed for a remote installation. Ladders, planks, paints and buckets were also transported to any job site.
Since little parking space was needed for this portable “storage situation,” I could get close to the many downtown jobs that filled my days as a sign man. During the dog days of summer, the bus transported my portable airbrush t-shirt stand to the local county fairs
I was a busy sign painter in Jackson, Michigan until the late eighties. When the computer began to erode the bread and butter of the sign man, I was in the right place at the right time. I was fortunate to find another market for what I love to do. I found a huge demand for airbrushed murals on the backs of motor homes. This particular demographic had just begun. Ma & Pa USA wanted to “live the dream,” live in a motorhome and look like a touring country star. The creation of an endless series of custom pictorials began. Each of these works revealed a portion of their personality and identified part of the scope of their interests. This VW bus accompanied me through this transition of becoming an airbrush mural artist and remained my perfect partner at the rallies we travelled to for many years.
To produce airbrushed images of eagles, pristine mountain streams, wolves, and steamboats required traveling to produce these works of art. The cargo in the bus now became specific to the task. In addition to the sign makers’ arsenal, airbrushing lacquers, clear urethanes, masking paper and tape, ladders, a plank and drop cloths were efficiently stowed between the opportunities that occurred across this land. During this period of full-time travel – living in the RV with the bus hooked behind in tow – Letterfly became the most prolific of all the RV artists and earned the reputation of being the best in the industry.
As the result, “GulliVWer” has been to 32 states. We started with the sign business in Michigan, served customers during the winters in Florida and spent a decade chasing motor homes across this land. Then we enjoyed another decade in service as I hand lettered, gilded and airbrushed a variety of sentiments as the resident artist of the largest RV dealership in the country.
The demand for murals on motor homes remained strong for two decades until technology took the labor out of creating spectacular painted graphics on RV exteriors. As the personal airbrushed images fell from grace, fortunately the building boom of Harley-Davidson stores was underway. Once again, I found myself traveling. This time I painted murals and signs in upscale retail environments. While on these job sites, requests for delicate pinline designs, pictorials and finessful inscriptions from the motorcycle crowd that frequented these places could not be avoided. Letterfly morphed once again, this time into the traveling pinstripe artist who serves customer-dedicated Harley-Davidson stores today.
Now, I use another VW bus with another specific load – a portable gallery of the pinstripers art – to set up each week along my route of motorcycle dealerships. The exterior paint job of “Van Winkle” is an appropriate combination of iconic painted elements that will not only remind the viewer of our connection with an era now gone and honor this fast disappearing facet of our lives. That exterior paint job enlightens and amuses the viewer with many examples of the spectrum of achievable effects with paint. The specifics of the service I provide today are a pure old-school art form, in an effort to keep the hand-painting tradition alive.
I trust you have enjoyed this vignette of the hand-painting tradition. Thank you for your consideration of the story behind this historic vehicle. I remain an artist with passion for this kind of work and now also teach others in an effort to keep this tradition alive. If you know of an apropos situation at a museum or person who may have the ability to include this vehicle in an appropriate collection, please pass this information on to them. Thank you in advance for your help.
Dave “Letterfly” Knoderer
About the Artist
The artist, Dave “Letterfly” Knoderer, started as a sign painter in 1973. He found the perfect outlet for his drive to create as a lettering man. At the same time, he found the VW Micro-Bus as the perfect conveyance for his free-lance career. He arranged the interior to efficiently house all the tools of the trade – the variety of brushes used for specific lettering tasks, measuring and marking tools, pattern making devices and a complete array of lettering paints and solvents. These items still reside as they have for years inside this bus along with other devices used for sign making and mural production.
The VW bus proved practical to transport 4×8 sheets for signs, ladders and a walk plank for big projects, plus the air compressor, hoses and cords needed for every aspect of custom paintwork accomplished on a variety of locations. The manner of painting signs by hand remained in the mainstream up until the mid-1980’s when the computer began to provide alternatives to the hand-painted letter.
When computer-generated vinyl letters began to erode the business of lettering by hand, Dave found a huge market in the emerging trend of personalizing the outside of the motor coach with an airbrushed pictorial image. At that time, the RV industry had evolved into a sophisticated alternative for retirees who became full-time RVers. The demographic of Ma & Pa USA proved lucrative as Letterfly satisfied their demand for personalized art on the exteriors of RV rigs for two decades.
This bus carried the artist from his home base in Jackson, Michigan to Florida each winter and across 32 states as he created high quality hand-painted airbrushed murals on the backs of an endless stream of motorhomes. This VW bus transported the equipment and paints needed for these projects to rally sites all across America. The bus continued to serve the artist in his role as the resident artist at the largest RV dealership in the world – a position Letterfly enjoyed for thirteen years.
The trend of airbrushed murals on motorhomes came to an end when technology began to make computer-generated paint-mask for spectacular exterior swoopy stripe paint jobs, full-color digital prints and the vinyl wraps that satisfy the market today
For three decades, over a thousand RV murals were hand-painted out of this bus along with countless hand-lettered signs and inscriptions, commercial and residential murals, scenic spectaculars, personal sentiments, gold leaf monograms, pet portraits and more.
Future generations that visit your museum will marvel at the examples of the one-time primary manner of creating decoration by hand with paint. This old bus not only keeps alive examples of the sign painters craft but also visually explains how the artist accomplished these works of art with the tools of the artisan onboard – many of which are probably considered crude today – that skilled hands involved in a labor of love use like a maestro.
Also included with the bus are examples of the hand-painter’s art: several hand-lettered signs, examples of designs available, or the “flash,” used for the artists’ T-shirt painting booth and various panels with stunning pinstripe designs. My wish is for this bus’ legacy to be preserved for posterity in a museum setting where this unique combination of vehicle and art will live for future generations to enjoy. The vehicle is available for purchase for your museum collection for a fair appraised value.
1976 Volkswagen Bus
This beloved bus is on its third engine. The current Type Four 2-liter Porsche motor is in great running shape. The engine builder is Kenny Baggerly of Tampa, Florida. He replaced the fuel injection with a carburetor. There is no good way to know the actual engine miles accumulated because the odometer kept racking up miles while the bus was being towed all over the country behind the RV.
The four-speed manual transmission was replaced years ago with one with a better gear ratio for highway driving. The metal body is mostly rust free, the steering is tight and the brakes work well.
My father bought this bus when it was two years old. I acquired it thirty-two years ago. This bus has been mechanically maintained for regular use for three decades and was put away in the barn running great. I still create custom art and paint work and although unnecessary, will be happy to participate with any plan to restore any part of the paint job to impeccable condition
Thank you for your consideration.
Dave “Letterfly” Knoderer