Keith Scharwath is an artist living in Silver Lake. He and his fiancé, Alissa Walker, live together in a cute little house overlooking the city. The space has a great relationship with the environment: it’s sunny, succulents act as characters framing the space, and birds sing on repeat for hours on a nice sunny day. As we sit in the living room after briefly discussing which cocktails to get at the Tiki Ti, he explains his story.
Keith grew up in New Jersey, about forty-five minutes outside of New York. His childhood was ruled by skateboarding, something that he pursued more than anything else growing up. “I was really serious about skateboarding,” he says, “In high school, I was ditching class and going to New York to skate all the time. Skateboarding really shaped my visual sense and is probably what led to me being a designer and artist.”
“There’s a certain vibe to the culture of skateboarding that is different from football, basketball, etc.,” he says, mentioning that he was constantly skipping school and making his mother insane lying to her. He liked art and was good at it when he was younger, but at this point in his life he spent all of his time skateboarding with friends.
Unfortunately, an injury led to the end of his skateboarding career. “It was over,” he said, “skateboarding was done so I had to scramble to figure out what to do with my life. I applied to art schools in New York, and I got into the School Of Visual Arts despite my crappy portfolio. And I did pretty well! I got into design, began working at MTV while I was still in school, and when I graduated I continued working there for two or three more years.”
After some time, he got a little sick of being in the New York/New Jersey area: “I had never lived anywhere else. I moved to the city to go to school, but if I got on a train, I could be back home in New Jersey in an hour. I wanted to live somewhere totally different, that was my desire.” Thus, Los Angeles came into the picture, as he says, it was really “the most different place I could think of from the east coast.”
But a different climate wasn’t the only reason he moved to LA: skateboarding also had its place in influencing the decision: “I think it all comes back to skateboarding because this is where the sport was born. My whole life I had this idyllic view of Southern California. The weather, the environment–it really appealed to me.”
Los Angeles is also a perfect fit for him because he’s a bit of a gearhead. “I love cars–I have three cars, actually. Alissa only travels by bike or public transportation so we cancel each other out,” he says laughing, as you can hear Alissa also laughing in the distance, “I really like old cars, and there are so many in LA.”
He loved it here in LA but it was hard at first. “When I got here, I didn’t have a job,” he said, “I slept on couches for three months and I was almost out of money. Then, though a friend in New York, I got a job at Ogilvy’s Brand Integration Group. It was a really great design job.”
His new job was great–but something was off: the art seemed to be out of his work. “I was doing lots of advertising design, working with great designers, but I got too far away from drawing and illustrating,” he explains, “I carved out time for myself to draw and experiment with mediums other than Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign.” He started doing his own thing on the side and, from that, things started to happen: “A friend of mine was editing the movie Beautiful Losers, which is where it all started. I met Aaron Rose and showed him my stuff, which he was kind of into it, but it was definitely like, ‘Well, if you do it and I like it, then maybe we’ll use it.”
Keith laughs, recalling the process. “I worked my ass off and created a hundred posters for him. Luckily, I started early enough in the process of the movie that by the time it was finished we had settled on a design and it went forward,” he details. His work on the film changed his life: “I quit the advertising job and started getting projects through Aaron and through people who were fans of the movie—I began to work with great clients like Nike and GOOD, where I built a really great relationship. All my best work, if I look at my website, came after Beautiful Losers: that’s where I found my voice.“
Was the movie the only thing to change his work? Not necessarily: the city had some affect on him as well. “There’s something about the environment here,” he says, “In New York, you walk around and you see things on the street. There a certain pace to that city, a walking pace. Here, you’re driving down boulevards and you’re getting a lot more. When you’re driving, many things are passing you by–billboards, signs, colors. When I was in school, and even when I got here and worked in advertising, I was creating clean, modern graphic design. After I was exposed to the landscape of LA, that totally changed.”
From working with Aaron and being involved with Beautiful Losers, his sensibilities shifted. “My work took on more of an organic, colorful hand-draw style,” he explains, “definitely less prescriptive and clean. My illustration style is all inspired by my environment in LA.” This inspiration could be anything, from signs around town to color, to plants, to the culture that’s unique to the city.
If Keith wasn’t in Los Angeles, he believes he’d still be in New York on the path he was, working to the same rhythm. “I feel like my quality of life in LA is so much better than it would be if I stayed in New York. My friends who live there are at the same stage as I am in their lives and careers, but they’re still living in shoebox apartments and struggling to get by — it’s very expensive. I would have hated that! That’s a huge bummer. It’s a no brainer to come to Los Angeles and be able to live in a house and go outside everyday, where you can see trees.”
Keith doesn’t plan on going anywhere: he’s “ninety percent sure” he won’t be moving any time soon. His art is here. He found his voice in this city and, in a way, his voice is uniquely LA. His most recent projects directly reflect this: he‘s been focusing on Los Angeles’ hand-painted sign culture. “I’m moving away from the computer and learning hand-lettering,” he explains, “I don’t know if this is something that I will make a lot of money doing, but it’s definitely something I’m passionate about and interested in.”
But he’s more than interested in this art form: he’s investing in it and becoming in some ways a “sign painter” by studying it at LA Trade Tech. “The sign painting class has been a huge sacrifice because it’s four days a week, five hours a day. It’s something that’s very hard to learn but I’m sucking it up and going for it. Pretty much everything we do in class is done by hand. They are teaching the same curriculum they taught in 1929 for sign painters.”
“When I first heard about the class, I decided to enroll right away out of fear that it wouldn’t be there much longer.” he says of the program, “I’m trying to be true to myself creatively, and I think LA is the ideal place to do something like this,” he adds, “It’s perfect. The planets aligned and I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else.”
For more on Keith, follow him on Twitter.